Wednesday, May 8, 2002
Hearing Set on SLAPP Motion in Ongoing South Gate Controversy
By ROBERT GREENE and KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writers
A May 17 hearing has been set in Los Angeles Superior Court in Norwalk on a motion by seven South Gate residents to strike a suit in which a judge entered a restraining order preventing them from approaching several of the city’s elected officials.
The orders were obtained two weeks ago by South Gate Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba and Councilwoman Maria Benavides, both of whom are allied with controversial city Treasurer Albert Robles in continuing raucous political battles in the small city in southeastern Los Angeles County.
Lawyers for the seven—some of whom are involved in efforts to recall Ruvalcaba, Benavides, Robles and another city official—on Monday obtained an expedited schedule on their motion to label the temporary restraining order a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
Also to be heard on May 17 is the injunction motion against the seven.
The district attorney’s corruption investigation of South Gate officials went countywide Thursday when search warrants were executed on 15 locations, including the Metropolitan News-Enterprise. The focus appeared to be attorneys who have done work for South Gate, including Clifton Albright of the law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit.
The warrant served on the newspaper’s office on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles named among places to be searched “ANY OFFICE WHICH CAN PROVIDE INFORMATION ON ALBRIGHT, YEE AND SCHMIDT [sic] PLACING PUBLICATIONS ON RECALL OF SOUTH GATE CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS.”
The firm was not named under the “PROPERTY TO BE SEIZED” heading in the warrant. That section named any “records or documents, correspondence, receipts, canceled checks, or contracts regarding payment for, publication of, or proof of publication of, any recall notice, recall petition or recall effort involving officers or employees of the City of South Gate.”
The District Attorney’s Office yesterday issued a two-sentence response to the threat of a lawsuit by the editor and co-publisher of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise stemming from the closure of the newspaper’s Spring Street office by District Attorney investigators for three hours while they prepared to search the office for financial documents they said related to a South Gate corruption probe.
“The District Attorney’s Office will continue to investigate allegations of corruption using all legal investigative tools available,” office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons read from a statement. “If there is a dispute about a judicially issued legal order, the proper remedy is to take the matter before the court that issued the order.”
While investigators threatened to search, no actual search took place and MetNews employees were allowed to return to work after the financial records requested were turned over by MetNews Co-Publisher Jo-Ann Grace.
MetNews Editor Roger Grace wrote an open letter to District Attorney Steve Cooley in yesterday’s MetNews demanding a public apology from Cooley before noon Friday for shutting down the newspaper’s operations, a move which Grace maintains is a violation of the First Amendment, and that he offer to pay for the salaries and overtime that was accrued by the MetNews staff as a result of being forced outside for three hours.
Grace also demanded Cooley acknowledge the press release he sent out regarding the search of the newsroom “contained inaccurate statements” and that “every attorney and investigator” in the District Attorney’s Office, including Cooley, attend at least two hours of training on avoiding First Amendment violations.
South Gate is notorious for its turbulent and fractious politics. The council majority and city treasurer Robles are targets of a recall effort, currently stalled in the court. Albright represents the city in that fight; the recall targets have separate counsel.
In the early stages of that recall attempt last year, elected City Clerk Carmen Avalos became embroiled in a dispute with the city attorney and other officials over the validity of the recall documents. The battle ended when the council majority stripped Avalos of her elections duties and replaced her with an elections “consultant,” attorney Julia Sylva.
Robles, meanwhile, was arrested last month on charges of making threats of violence against public officials. He presently is free on $500,000 bail pending further proceedings.
Avalos and the council minority—two members not aligned with Robles—became the targets of a new, and presumably competing, recall attempt in February.
Sources familiar with South Gate and the investigation say the district attorney is attempting to prove that attorney Albright and his firm are using their fees, paid by the city, to engineer the recall of Avalos and the two members of the council not aligned with Robles.
The documents given to the District Attorney’s Office Thursday by the Metropolitan News related to three legal notices published in the Feb. 21 issue of the MetNews that were part of that second recall effort.
Those notices were labeled “Notice of Intention to Circulate Recall Petition” and named Avalos, South Gate City Councilman Henry Gonzalez, and South Gate City Councilman Hector De La Torre.
They presumably were published in an attempt to satisfy the requirements of California Elections Code Secs. 11220 et. seq., which require that notices be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the jurisdiction in which a recall is to be attempted before petitions may circulate.
The notices listed the names of 30 proponents.
Proofs of publication were filed in the city clerk’s office on Feb. 26.
Among the documents taken were copies of invoices for the three notices, each in the amount of $250 and each listing Albright Yee & Schmit on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles as the party to be billed.
Also included were copies of the text of the notices to be published. Attached to one was a Feb. 20 memo on Albright, Yee & Schmit letterhead from Cristeta Klaparda to MetNews legal notices supervisor Pam Putnam asking that Klaparda’s assistant, Jolynn A. Blaquera, be called with “the cost for the one time publication of our three notices.”
Attachments included a fax on the letterhead of Avalos, the city clerk, with a handwritten query as to who requested publication; and a fax from the company to Sylva giving proof of the newspaper’s adjudication as a newspaper of general circulation.
Also given to the district attorney investigators were three internal computer print-outs for the notice requests listing the customer number assigned by the company to “walk-in” customers, not to the Albright firm.
Putnam said that after the firm was sent a copy of the proofs of publication with the firm’s name on it, someone from the firm called and requested that proofs be re-sent—without the firm’s name.
Albright on Friday said his firm did not place the ads and would not pay for them.
Sylva, acting as the city’s chief elections official, said she determined that the Metropolitan News did not qualify under the Elections Code for publications of intent to circulate recall petitions in South Gate, because there is a newspaper published within the city limits where such notices must be published. Sylva sent lead proponents Norma Pereda, Gladys Bonilla and Heriberto Aguilar a latter on March 7 advising them that the published notice was invalid and giving them 10 days to cure the error by republishing.
Sylva said the proponents did not cure the defect and that the attempted recall was dead. To date, Sylva said, there have been no further actions on the attempted recall of Avalos, De La Torre and Gonzalez.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company