MY TURN-Many people have described Richard Alarcon as a great example of the “professional politician.” He prefers to think of himself as the advocate for community service, having been involved in the political arena most of his adult life. In the last three years, though, it has been mostly on the dark side.
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife were convicted in 2014 of some but not all voter-fraud and perjury charges brought in a case that accused them of lying about where they lived, so he would be qualified to run for his council seat. State and city election law requires that candidates live in the district they seek to represent.
Alarcon was convicted of three voter-fraud charges and one perjury charge, but was acquitted on 12 other counts. His wife, Flora Montes de Oca, was convicted of two voting charges and one perjury count. He was sentenced to 120 days of jail time, 600 hours of community service and 5 years of probation during which he was not allowed to run for public office. His wife was given 400 hours of community service. Alarcon ended up serving 51 days of monitored house arrest, reported to probation for more than a year and was in the process of performing his community service when the convictions were overturned.
This month he filed for election to run in the 29th Congressional District against incumbent Congress Member Tony Cardenas.
So what happened?
In January of this year, the Alarcon verdicts were overturned on the basis that they did not get a fair trial due to erroneous instructions given by the Judge to the Jury. The Attorney General did not appeal and the District Attorney has until the end of April to decide if he wants to retry the overturned verdicts.
I sat down with Richard Alarcon for two hours and we covered a multitude of subjects. I brought up the fact that some of his non-supportive constituents have been saying he was really guilty and was lucky that the judge erred. He recounted how he has gone through more than a 6 ½ year battle. For those who think he got his life back on a technicality, here’s what he had to say:
"It was not a technicality. It was a matter of law. My wife and I always knew we did nothing illegal. Living in two homes is not a crime and the jury's innocent verdicts essentially declared that we had established our domicile. It isn't wrong to temporarily move from one house to another in order to repair our house. We had a baby coming and we wanted to make sure the house was decent for her to live in. The repairs did take longer than we expected, but we always intended to return and we did return.
"Frankly, our personal struggle for justice is no different in my mind from the struggle to find justice in my community. It's the same when I'm fighting for the Valley's fair share; fighting for the poor; fighting to create jobs; or fighting for those who lost their homes in disasters or in the foreclosure crisis. I'm equally passionate about both."
Since redistricting, Sunland is now in Council District 7, so now, there wouldn't have been a problem. Rumor has it that one of his political competitors wanted Alarcon's seat on the City Council and raised the "domicile" issue to the authorities. He would neither confirm nor deny this rumor.
A little history. Richard Alarcon became the first Latino from the San Fernando Valley to win election to the Los Angeles City Council and to the state Senate. He began his advocacy for the Valley back when Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to be his representative to the San Fernando Valley. Alarcon managed to mobilize new, Latino voters as well as to bring together the various ethnicities that constitute the San Fernando Valley.
The threat of Valley Secession from Los Angeles was a divisive battle. Alarcon said he tried to remain neutral but one of the key negatives against the Valley becoming its own city was the matter of "water and power." Since DWP is located in Los Angeles, it would be selling its two essential services to the newly formed city which would have no control over the Department. He worried that the Valley would be over-charged, putting an undue burden on its stakeholders.
I asked him how he was affected by 51 days of house arrest. He said it was certainly better than sitting in jail, yet he could only leave for work and return. He missed seeing his Xmas lights twinkle and playing outside with his eight-year old daughter. He worked on his consulting business and played a lot of online poker.
Since he had a lot of time to contemplate the recent political climate, I asked what he thought of the current Los Angeles City Council. He replied that they seemed very congenial with each other...perhaps too congenial. Many of the same challenges LA experienced while he was on the Council are coming home to roost. He said that the transfer fees paid by the DWP to the City’s General Fund could have paid for the upkeep and replacement of infrastructure rather than having to impose new rate increases. Fixing all those water mains could have provided jobs.
An article in the Los Angeles Times on September 14, 2011 stated that Alarcon called for "the expansion of a proposal to hike sewer fees, saying the current plan to increase them nearly 40% over five years is too timid. Alarcon, who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley, said a package of larger increases would serve the city as a jobs initiative, putting more people to work and allowing more pipes to be repaired. ‘It's our opportunity to create a bit of a stimulus program,’ he said. Alarcon made his remarks at the council's Energy and Environment Committee which delayed a decision on sewer fee increases for a fourth time.”
We talked about the Neighborhood Council System which he helped develop in his District. I asked him if he thought the NCs would emerge as a political power. (The threat of that may be why certain City Council Members try to diminish its influence!) He answered that he never expected the system to be a political PAC or to get behind a candidate (they are a City agency and must remain neutral) but he loved the fact that they had been his eyes and ears. He was one of the people responsible for the NCs having influential planning committees as part of their mandate.
Having been personally affected by “term limits,” he believes that it does a disservice to the constituents. It takes a long time to get things done and to learn about complicated issues. Just at the point of being able to master so many subjects, terms come to an end and there is a new election. Much of that effort goes for naught. Alarcon has been termed out several times in his various political offices.
He had no plans to run for office again and had been working in his consulting business that he enjoyed. But after the verdicts were over-turned he received calls from his congressional area – people were asking him to reconsider. Apparently there was concern that incumbent Congressman Tony Cardenas was having legal problems.
A federal investigation resulted in one of Cardenas’ staff members receiving a grand jury subpoena last year. According to Alarcon, "Cardenas has retained five law firms -- four of which specialize in white collar crime. Statements on file with the Federal Election Commission show Cardenas' campaign spent $231,470 on legal services, of that $125,000 was paid between mid-October and late November."
Alarcon called on Cardenas to explain what is happening with the federal investigation. "I have to be very frank and say, people have a lot of concerns about the pending investigation," Alarcon said. The LA Times noted in their coverage that they also had asked for an interview with Cardenas. There’s been no response.
Just as some Democratic leaders are putting together a back-up plan, in the remote chance that Hillary Clinton's email troubles blow up, Alarcon worried that Cardenas’ seat could go to a Republican if the case involving him or his office makes him not re-electable. Alarcon pointed out that there are many talented men and women in the SVF who have the makings of great leaders and he wants to encourage them.
It’s well-know that there are two Latino factions in the San Fernando Valley that have been battling each other for a long time. Alarcon noted, "The worst thing we could do is to have another ‘cabal.’ We need people who are less concerned with their personal power and more concerned with community empowerment.”
I had never met Richard Alarcon previous to our interview. He hadn’t been my City Councilman, my State Senator or Assemblymember, so I had little knowledge about how effective he’d been in the various political positions he held. While doing my research, I came across a transcript of an interview he had done with the LA Weekly when he was running for Mayor in 2005 that makes for interesting reading. It outlines many of the challenges facing Los Angeles and several of the solutions he discussed back then. And they are just as relevant today as they were eleven years ago.
And just as an aside: For those of you who think this election season has seen some dirty tricks, watch the series that CNN is presenting called "Race for the Whitehouse.” Even Abe Lincoln was not averse to using an unfair advantage to get the Republican nomination.
As always comments welcome.
(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.