Gateway City Good Times: $31 Million Fast-Fingered; Business Lunch at Chuck E. Cheese's


Officials in Montebello, an eastern Los Angeles County town of 64,000 with a long history of public-money hanky-panky, misspent $31 million in public funds between 2005 and 2010, according to two new audits from California's fiscal controller. 

An audit of Montebello's redevelopment agency [pdf] and another one of the city's "special gas tax street improvement fund" [pdf] "found $31 million in questionable spending, loans, and fund transfers," says state Controller John Chiang. 

Montebello is one of the group of "Gateway Cities" that includes the unpopulated industrial town of Vernon (which was the subject of a recent move by the state legislature to revoke its city charter) and Bell (which became a national scandal last year after the L.A. Times revealed its city manager's salary of nearly $1 million a year). 

Montebello's interim city administrator quit this spring after a falling out with the existing political leadership. In a recent issue of Reason I discussed how the city managed to spend $1 million to put up an Applebee's in the late nineties, and apparently things have been going downhill since then. 

Only the names of the family-friendly restaurants have changed. From the RDA report: 

In May 2009, a city manager incurred expenditures of $1,315 of RDA funds for the purchase of Dodgers tickets and parking passes, and $788 for dinner in Las Vegas. The same city manager also received per-diem reimbursement for the dinner in Las Vegas. This city manager also incurred $3,112 in petty cash reimbursements from the RDA during July and September 2009, of which approximately $600 was for lunches. It should be noted that the city manager approved all of these expenditures.

That would be former city manager Richard Torres, whom we last met making $211,921 in a roundup of local city managers. Torres gave up his job in November 2009 and was replaced by one Nick Pacheco, who lasted only a month before being replaced Randy Narramore. Narramore lasted until July of 2010, when he was replaced by Peter Cosentini, who appears to be the first city manager/administrator to make a serious effort to get to the bottom of the city's financial secrets. After quitting in April, Cosentini was replaced by the developer Larry J. Kosmont, who is still serving as the interim city administrator. 

Kosmont reached out to Reason (on an unrelated development story) a few months ago, but after some back and forth decided he did not have legal clearance to speak with us after all. I hope we'll be able to get some insight from him on Montebello's fiscal follies. 

Meanwhile, the Whittier Daily News catches up with Torres and reveals that one of the challenged lunch expenses was for a meal at Chuck E. Cheese's: 

Torres said City Council members frequently asked him to meet at local eateries to discuss city business.

"The council's preference, more than others, was to meet for breakfast or lunch," Torres said. "I had a standing breakfast meeting each week to meet with (former councilwoman) Kathy Salazar."

Torres said he met at Chuck E. Cheese's with former councilwoman Mary Anne Saucedo- Rodriguez on one occasion, because she was baby-sitting her grandchildren.

The city tried to challenge the lunch complaint in the state report. The state controller's office responds: 

The SCO finds it hard to believe that the City Administrator met with an official from another city at a pizza parlor known to be child friendly to discuss Montebello City Council or Redevelopment Agency agenda items.

Most of the towns in this part of the county are specimens of government that would be considered sub-par by national standards, but they're more or less normal by L.A. standards. Assembly Speaker John Pérez ultimately failed in his bid to disincorporate Vernon, but the effort was a dire warning. Bad as these places are as independent polities, they would probably be even worse off as part of the phenomenally corrupt and inept City of Los Angeles.