Finger Pointing Escalates in Southeast City

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

Two longtime Bell Gardens councilwoman who until recently were close friends, made it clear Monday there is “no turning back,” with each accusing the other of being unfit for office.

The tit-for-tat of accusations became public during the March 13 council meeting, when Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez accused Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores of not living in the city, a violation of election law. On Monday, Flores responded by calling for an investigation into the finances of a nonprofit group run by Rodriguez.

According to Flores, she has received multiple complaints from parents who participated in Heroes of Dreams accusing Rodriguez of collecting fees for trips and lessons that never happened.

She also accused Rodriguez of failing to include information related to the nonprofit’s finances in in her Statement of Economic Interest, a form required by the Fair Political Practices Commission that must be submitted annually and is used to determine potential conflicts of interests.

“Where is that money going,” asked Flores, estimating the group had collected thousands of dollars in fees.

“Investigate all that you want because there is nothing there,” Rodriguez shot back, challenging her accusers to come forward. “I swear, on my daughter, I did not make a penny,” Rodriguez said.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Rodriguez said the nonprofit status of Heroes of Dreams – started to teach young children to perform on stage – was only active for a few months. She later told EGP a lawyer is helping her complete documents she did not know needed to be filed.

Flores accused Rodriguez of violating conflicts of interest laws by using city facilities free of charge for her financial benefit. She later told EGP facility rental fees should not have been waived for Rodriguez because it implies her group’s activities are city sponsored.

According to city records, Rodriguez used the facility periodically over the last year free of charge, most recently in December of 2016.

Recreation and Community Services Director Chris Daste, told EGP it’s “not out of the ordinary” to allow city facilities to be used free of charge for activities that benefit local youth and are a good cause, as long as there is no requirement for city staff to be on site.

If the group is profiting from the activity, however, “that would certainty be an issue,” he said.

Rodriguez scoffs at Flores’ claims she pocketed money, saying many of the children were not charged a dime.

“If anything, I have forked money out of my own pocket,” she said.

Rodriguez told EGP funds collected were used to lease studio space in Bell; rent on the site is now past due.

She complained that other council members have used city facilities for free and it was never a problem until now.

The latest round of accusations come on the heels of the city filing a complaint in Superior Court that alleges Rodriguez “vacated” her office after missing 10 of the 20 council meetings held in 2016. Rodriguez maintains her absences were related to an ongoing illness, but has refused to submit proof fearing it will be used against her.

Rodriguez fired back against the effort to oust her by launching a barrage of accusations against Flores and Councilman Pedro Aceituno. She demanded staff look into the legality of Aceituno holding two elected offices at the same time: he was elected to the Central Basin Municipal Water District board last November.

In response to Rodriguez’ allegations about her residency, Flores Monday asked city staff to conduct an investigation and report back its findings at the next council meeting.

“Even if she lived there a few months, that’s still a violation of the law,” maintains Rodriguez.

According to Flores, she invested in property in Downey but never lived there.

On Monday, Flores listed properties Rodriguez owns outside Bell Gardens and accused her fellow councilwoman of using a property owned by Flores, without her consent, to enroll her child in a school outside Bell Gardens. Rodriguez previously pointed out that Flores’ children do not attend Bell Gardens schools.

Rodriguez laughed off claims about using Flores’ address. She defended her decision to send her son to a Downey high school, saying the political climate at the time made it necessary.

“I wanted to protect him,” she said, adding it was Flores’ idea to use her address.

Rodriguez told EGP she expected retaliation, in fact she expected more.

“It doesn’t faze me anymore,” she said. “A couple of months ago it would have, but not anymore.”

One thing she is certain, Rodriguez believes the rest of the council will point the finger at her just as others have in the past, noting, “history repeats itself.”

“They will say I started this drama …[and] Yes I did,” said Rodriguez. “And there’s still much more to say.”

Updated April 13 11:20 a.m. to correct date of council meeting.

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April 13, 2017  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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