The city has been hailed as a bastion of citizen-activism in a civically disengaged region. But now, the FBI and other agencies are looking into possible conflicts of interest and other misconduct.

By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times
August 17, 2010

Maywood Councilman Felipe Aguirre sees his small working-class city as “the Santa Monica of the Southeast” — a place built on activism, a healthy distrust of the establishment and compassion for the less fortunate.

But these days, Maywood is gaining a decidedly less romantic image.

Earlier this year, officials announced that they were firing the city workforce and outsourcing most municipal functions to the neighboring city of Bell. Then, Bell’s government imploded in a scandal over eye-popping salaries paid to the city manager and other senior officials.

Now, Maywood is under scrutiny from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies over two city deals with ties to Aguirre and his allies. Sources told The Times that investigators are also looking into deals apparently unrelated to Aguirre.

The Maywood probes are the latest in a string of public corruption investigations in southeast Los Angeles County that have resulted in indictments in South Gate, Lynwood and Vernon in recent years. The California attorney general’s office and the L.A. County district attorney are now investigating Bell as well.

It’s unclear exactly how many transactions the FBI is examining in Maywood. Several sources with knowledge of the probe said one of the deals involves a $95,000 federal grant that Aguirre and a business partner received from the city in 2007. They used it to refurbish the facade of a property where the business — a community advocacy group — is located. Aguirre’s business received the grant despite concerns from the city’s planning director over a possible conflict of interest.

David Mango, the planning director, said he immediately called the city attorney’s office, which raised no objections.

In an interview, Aguirre said he regrets taking the money. He said he had concerns at the time but was never told he was ineligible for the money.

“It’s there, it happened, and I can’t take it back,” he said. “Do I wish it happened? No. Should I have talked to someone else and gotten better advice? Probably. But it happened and I can’t take it back and I can’t say it didn’t happen.”

Aguirre’s election in 2005 marked a shift in Maywood from a relatively conservative Latino-majority council to a more liberal one dominated by social activists. The old council had been criticized by many Maywood residents for supporting police activity that included aggressive parking and traffic enforcement that allegedly targeted illegal immigrants. They were also criticized for maintaining cozy ties to a towing company that lavished some public officials with meals and tickets to sporting events in Las Vegas.

It didn’t take long for Aguirre and his allies to make their mark. The council declared Maywood a “sanctuary city,” making it a lightning rod in the debate about illegal immigration and provoking fierce debates among the city’s mostly Latino residents.

Over the next few years Aguirre and other council members, with the support of activist groups including Union de Vecinos, took on the Police Department, the Los Angeles Unified School District and a local water district.

“Our best defense, and our best situation, is the people being organized,” Aguirre said. “This is a city that basically tries to strengthen the roots of community participation.”

Outsiders noticed the increased public participation in Maywood — particularly in contrast to neighboring Bell. “Maywood is more volatile,” said Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate). “But in Bell, people mistook stability for democracy and participation.”

The question in Maywood is whether activism may have become a cover for improper spending.

In addition to investigating Aguirre’s $95,000 grant, law enforcement officials have asked questions about $360,000 paid to Union de Vecinos to run a lead abatement program. The officials familiar with the law enforcement inquiries spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject publicly.

Interviews and records reviewed by The Times show that the group did not remove lead from any homes, although it did perform lead tests and conduct public education campaigns.

Former Maywood City Manager Paul Phillips said he cancelled the contract in late 2009 because he didn’t think the city was getting its money’s worth and was concerned about the group’s ties to Aguirre and his allies.

“There were no efforts to do any remediation,” Phillips said. “I just thought the dollar amounts were excessive.”

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