By Roger M. Grace
Former Carson Mayor Albert Robles has taken out papers to challenge Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carol Elswick in the June 7 primary. That’s his prerogative.
He has ballyhooed an intent to unseat the jurist based on the 2018 public admonishment she received from the Commission on Judicial Performance. That penalty was based in part on the nastiness she characteristically exhibits.
But, if he does file his nominating petition, perfecting his candidacy, he could be cutting his throat, politically. To the limited extent that attention is drawn to judicial contests, he would wind up in the spotlight, with renewed attention to sexual-abuse allegations against him, indications that he did not actually reside in Carson, as legally required, while holding offices there as city councilman, then as mayor, and more.
The sexual-abuse claims—including those brought by the daughter of the late former Lieutenant Gov. Mervyn Dymally who said in her suit that Robles attempted to rape her—were not proven. However, his campaign finance-disclosure violations did result in his paying $12,000 in fines, in a settlement with the Fair Political Practices Commission. And his unlawful holding of two incompatible offices was brought to a halt after a judge issued a writ of quo warranto which was affirmed by the Court of Appeal.
So far, Robles has not been battered too badly. While the quo warranto action succeeded, with Robles being yanked off the board of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (“WRD”), the politico was able to keep the WRD salary he drew and should not have; was not subjected to the $5,000 fine authorized by statute; and the $17,000 he was ordered to pay in attorney fees incurred by the county based on his judicially torpedoed cross-complaint has not been forked over by him. However, further exposure of himself to public scrutiny, in the form of a bid for a county-wide office, might prove irreparably damaging to a politico whose reputation is sagging.
In a rather intemperate Feb. 10 email to the METNEWS, Robles protested a recitation of his background in a news article reporting his intended challenge to Elswick. The article says:
“Robles’s ethics have been challenged over the years. In 2016, he agreed to pay fines totaling $12,000 for campaign finance law violations.”
“It was for being late—that is not unethical. WTF! I guess you have never been late?’ ”
“Not unethical?” Nonsense. This was not a matter of mere tardiness but, rather, concealment. Robles did not publicly reveal, during election contests, the identity of his financial contributors, which voters had a statutory right to know.
By the way, if you’re not cognizant of the meaning of the initialism, “WTF,” well, you’re not alone. A METNEWS staff member filled me in. It’s a crude expression.
One judge remarks that his use of it “is mind boggling,” saying that Robles would warrant a “not qualified” rating “from anyone.”
With respect to his holding two offices contemporaneously that were incompatible, Robles dismissed the matter in his email by saying:
“In other words, the two offices were incompatible and had absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Nothing to do with him? More nonsense, and worse. Robles fought vigorously in an effort to retain both the WRD post and the office of mayor when efforts were made in court to strip him of the directorship, and sought to be defended from public funds. His personal involvement belies his assertion that the matter had “nothing to do” with him.
Robles was elected as a director of the WRD in November 1992. He remained in that post until a Los Angeles Superior Court judge yanked it from him in 2018.
Voters in Carson on March 6, 2013 granted Robles a spot on the City Council and on April 1, 2015 colleagues on that body appointed him to fill out the term of the mayor, who had just gained election to the higher paying office of city clerk.
Then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey on Jan. 25, 2016, brought an action in quo warranto against Robles (having obtained the requisite consent of the attorney general) based on his holding two incompatible offices, in violation of Government Code §1099. That section specifies:
“When two public offices are incompatible, a public officer shall be deemed to have forfeited the first office upon acceding to the second.”
Lacey alleged that since March 6, 2013, Robles had “usurped, intruded into, and unlawfully held and exercised the office of Director….”
The politico scampered to secure the approval of both the WRD and the City Council to hold both offices.
Nonetheless, on April 17, 2018, Judge James Chalfant ruled:
“The Complaint for quo warranto is granted. Robles is removed from the office of WRD director.”
He declined to impose a $5,000 fine authorized by Code of Civil Procedure §809.
The judge determined that there was “a potential clash of the functions of his two offices” and concluded that the clearances from the city and the WRD were ineffective.
He did not need to “decide whether Carson as a general law city is empowered to override the common law prohibition against holding incompatible offices because WRD cannot,” Chalfant said. WRD, he reasoned, had authority to legislate solely as to matters relating to groundwater replenishment, and had no power to abrogate the “incompatible offices rule.”
The Court of Appeal for this district on Jan. 29, 2020, affirmed the trial court decision in an opinion by Justice Lamar Baker, who wrote:
“We think it obvious that a shopkeeper who sets the prices that customers must pay would face a real possibility of divided loyalties if simultaneously selected to be a consumer advocate for the customers who patronize the store. On our facts, Robles is the shopkeeper—setting water replenishment assessments his Carson constituents must ultimately pay (or legally protest). Section 1099 forbids this sort of conflicted arrangement by making it unlawful to hold multiple public offices where there is a ‘possibility of a significant clash of duties or loyalties’ between them.”
Baker acknowledged that §1099 permits the holding of two offices where “expressly authorized by law,” but said that “the most natural reading of the Legislature's unqualified use of the term ‘law’ in Section 1099 is as a reference to law passed by the same body that enacted Section 1099, i.e., state law,” and that, in any event, “the WRD passed only a resolution approving Robles’s dual offices—and a resolution is not ‘law.’ ”
When Lacey brought the action in quo warranto, Robles insisted that the water district pay for his legal defense, citing Government Code §995. That section provides that, generally, “upon request of an employee or former employee, a public entity shall provide for the defense of any civil action or proceeding brought against him, in his official or individual capacity or both, on account of an act or omission in the scope of his employment as an employee of the public entity.”
The water district on March 17, 2016, entered into a contract with the law firm of Willoughby & Associates to provide representation to Robles. It had second thoughts about that, and on May 12, 2016, rescinded the contract.
That move spawned further litigation.
In the quo warranto proceeding, Robles on July 20, 2016, filed a cross-complaint against Lacey and Deputy District Attorney Marian M.J. Thompson for tortious interference with contract. He alleged that they bullied the WRD into backing out of its contract by referring to the criminal Grand Jury their contention that authorizing payment for the legal defense of Robles entailed an illegal allocation of public funds.
On Nov. 28, 2016, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green granted a special motion to strike that pleading under the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure §425.16. He found that the cross-complaint “arises from protected activity under the statute, and there is no reasonable probability that Cross-Complainant will prevail on his cause of action.”
Pursuant to §425.16, Green on Nov. 28, 2016, ordered Robles to pay the cross-defendants’ attorney fees, setting the amount at $17,000.
“The Department of the Treasurer and Tax Collector, which handles such collections for the County, has not been paid the fees awarded,” Senior Deputy County Counsel Richard Girgado advised on Tuesday.
Robles brought a petition for a writ of mandate seeking to compel WRD to pay for his defense in the quo warranto action. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Amy D. Hogue denied the petition on April 21, 2017, explaining:
“The gravamen of the People's complaint is not Robles’ conduct as Director of WRD, it is his alleged conduct in his subsequent roles as city council member and mayor that give rise to the alleged violation of Government Code Section 1099. The People’s Complaint does not allege (and Petitioner presents no evidence) that WRD directed him to seek or hold any office for the City of Carson or that his conduct as councilmember or mayor was at the direction of WRD or furthered its interests.”
Justice Carl H. Moor authored the Aug. 8, 2018 opinion affirming Hogue’s judgment.
“In this case, the trial court correctly determined that the act at issue in the underlying lawsuit was Robles’s assumption of office for the City of Carson,” he wrote. “Robles’s act in assuming a position with the City of Carson clearly was not within the course and scope of his employment with the District, and therefore the District was entitled to refuse to provide for his defense.”
Was the matter of Robles’s receipt of payments for serving, unlawfully, in a governmental post he was obliged to abandon upon election to a new office—with him fighting, mightily, as a pro per, to gold onto the first office—a matter that had nothing to do with him?
Robles—who does not list with the State Bar a physical address of a law office (using only a Post Office box number)—apparently needs employment. He almost landed a job in 2020 as “special interim general manager” of the WRD, with a salary of $137,500 for a six-month stint, or $275,000 a year if he were hired as the general manager.
Reporting on the Dec. 17, 2000, meeting of the WRD board at which the “controversial proposal to hire” him fizzled, the Daily Breeze said that “tensions [were] high and accusations of corruption lobbed by both sides.”
The newspaper recited:
“Robles’ hiring was nearly universally opposed by other stakeholders with nine members of Congress, seven state legislators, two county supervisors and a handful of cities coming out against it. A lobbyist for the district warned the board earlier this week that the damage could affect funding and support for future legislative initiatives.”
The Pasadena Star News reported that according to an analysis, if Robles had served the six months, “it could spike his pension over his lifetime by more than $2.7 million” and that the pension “would jump by $5.4 million if the board later extended his contract to a full year.”
The article continued:
“ ‘It’s not a red flag, it’s a garbage truck full of red flags,’ said Robert Fellner, executive director of Transparent California, a public pay database. ‘It’s just so obviously corrupt from every angle you look at it.’ ”
Robles does excite negative emotions…some highly negative. When Robles (then facing misdemeanor charges based on alleged election misconduct in Carson) challenged then-District Steve Cooley, who was seeking a third term, the incumbent said of his rival:
“In the 160-year history of the Los Angeles County D.A.’s office, he’s probably the most unqualified candidate ever. And there have been a lot of unqualified candidates.”
(Robles came in second in a three-person race, garnering 19.6 percent of the ballots, and Cooley, with 64.9 percent, was reelected.)
One Los Angeles Superior Court judge (who asked not to be identified) commented in an email:
“I don’t know Albert Robles (office 156) personally, but from everything I have ever read about him, he is a crook. A crook who now wants to wear a robe. Great—just what we need, right?”
To be clear, Robles is not a “crook” in the sense of having been convicted of a crime. He hasn’t been (though he’s been charged). However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “crook” as “a person who engages in fraudulent or criminal practices” (emphasis added) and there have been credible allegations (not resulting in adjudications) that Robles falsified the matter of his residency in Carson and has engaged in campaign wrongdoing.
A Jan. 11, 2021 opinion by Div. Six of the Court of Appeal for this district cites the word “crook” as an example of protected hyperbole reflecting an opinion. That some, if not many, observers have formed an opinion that Robles is, at least in a loose sense, a “crook,” is understandable.
So, out of work, as it would seem, Robles has decided to run for a judgeship (a demanding job for those who apply themselves but one with short hours for those who don’t). He’s targeted Judge Carol Elswick, seeking to exploit, politically, the 2018 public admonishment she received from the Commission on Judicial Performance—though Robles, lacking in astuteness, has said that the scolding emanated from the Judicial Council.
While questions do exist as to whether Elswick is deserving of the office she holds, there appears to be no question as to Robles’s suitability for that office. Plainly, he’s unfit—blatantly unfit—for it.
Robles, who obtained his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, was admitted to practice on June 4, 2002. He was suspended from practice on three occasions, though only for a few days each time, based either on a failure to pay bar dues or to complete the MCLE requirement.
Copyright 2022, Metropolitan News Company