FPPC Approves Penalties Against Commerce Officials

September 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Despite residents demanding harsher penalties, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) today approved reduced fines against two Commerce officials accused of violating campaign-filing laws, among other charges.

The commission approved a $55,000 fine against Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio, who initially faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the FPPC  over allegations she had illegally transferred campaign funds into her personal bank account, used a campaign debit card to pay for a kitchen remodel and had failed to timely file and properly disclose contributions. Under the agreement, $15,000 of the fine must be paid out of her own pocket, the remainder can be paid using campaign funds and donations.

The commission also approved a $15,500 penalty against Mayor Ivan Altamirano. As EGP detailed in separate story published today, Altamirano is accused of  violating conflict of interest and campaign filing laws, including failing to file and properly disclose financial activity on pre-election campaign statements, late filing of 24-hour contribution reports and for voting on a matter the FFPC concluded he had a financial interest in.

Commere Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, is facing a $15,500 fine from the Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, has agreed to pay a $15,500 fine levied by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

The mayor is accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to the city’s planning commission and to get approval for the installation of a stop sign within 150 feet of his rental property.

The penalty amounts approved by the Commission are the result of negotiations between FPPC Enforcement Division officials and the Commerce elected officials. The recommendation by enforcement officials did not sit well with Commerce residents who asked commissioners to reject the settlements.

“I’m asking that you be a lot more firm,” said Richard Hernandez, a Commerce resident who traveled to Sacramento for the hearing. “Make this case an example, not just for Commerce but all the other cities, show them that you’re not going to show any type of tolerance for their violations.”

Hernandez added that other elected officials are following her, citing Altamirano’s troubles as an example. He told the Commission that Commerce residents had been harmed and deserved justice.

FPPC enforcement staff initially proposed a $104,000 default judgment against Baca Del Rio for 24 different violations of the Political Reform Act. The Act regulates campaign finances, conflict of interests, lobbying and ethics laws.

In a 500-page complaint against Baca Del Rio, the councilwoman was accused of illegally transferring $8,000 in campaign funds to her personal bank account and in a separate transaction using a campaign fund debit card to  pay for a kitchen remodel. Baca Del Rio claimed the transferred funds were reimbursement for a loan she had made to her campaign committee.

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio will pay a $55,000 fine to the FPPC. (City of Commerce)

Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca Del Rio will pay a $55,000 fine to the FPPC. (City of Commerce)

According to the FPPC’s Enforcement Division, however, there is no evidence she ever made such a loan.

Baca Del Rio was first elected to the Commerce City Council in 2005, but recalled in November 2008 only to be reelected a year later. She was most recently reelected in March 2013

Altamirano was appointed to the city council in March 2012 to fill the seat left vacant by former Councilman Robert Fierro who resigned after pleading guilty to a felony conspiracy charge. Altamirano was elected for the first time in March 2013.

The 5-member commission heavily discussed Baca Del Rio’s reduced fine during a meeting in August -that had been negotiated that same say – but voted 2-2 to hold the matter over until the full settlement agreement was in writing and available for the Commission to review. Commissioner Eric Casher, who ultimately voted in favor of the settlement, was not present at the previous meeting to cast his vote.

At the time, citing Baca Del Rio’s past problems and delayed response to the current action against her, the commissioners strongly stated they wanted to see all Baca Del Rio’s stipulations in writing before voting, adding they were reserving their right to reject the settlement agreement if not satisfied by its final form.

Today, Commissioner Maria Audero cast the lone vote against the settlement, saying Baca Del Rio had a history of  violating the rules and not reporting contributions, noting that although the Commerce councilwoman was fined in 2011 for many of the same violations, within months of stipulating “she would not do it again” she was again in violation. Audero said she supported issuing a more punitive fine based on her belief that Baca Del Rio had an “intent to disregard” the law.

Commerce resident Charles Calderon also spoke during the meeting, telling commissioners he was disappointed by their decision to approved the reduced penalty for Baca Del Rio, despite her having been fined for similar infractions in the past.

While both Hernandez and Calderon spoke against reduced fines for either of the elected officials, most of their criticism was directed at Baca Del Rio.

According to Calderon’s testimony, a number of residents are collecting signatures to hand over to Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey asking that her office open an investigation into what he called Baca Del Rio’s abuse of power as an elected official, and her continuously violating campaign and conflict of interest laws.

Calderon said the ethics and campaign violations by the two sitting council members have harmed Commerce’s public image, claiming Commerce is now being bundled up with Southeast cities that have had a history of scandals involving politicians accused of corruption.

“Now we’re being compared to the cities of Bell and Vernon.” he told commissioners.

 

Updated: 10/04/16: Clarifies that Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio claimed the transfer of funds was repayment for a loan she made to her campaign, and to not to pay for a kitchen remodel as stated in an earlier version of this story. According to Baca Del Rio, it was she who brought her husband’s use of a campaign debit card to pay for services related to the personal kitchen remodel to the attention of the FPPC.

Second Commerce Official Faces FPPC Fine

September 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Less than two months after Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio faced one of the largest penalties ever issued by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for campaign violations, a second city elected official is also facing fines and is accused of violating conflict of interest and campaign filing laws.

Under a negotiated agreement with the FPPC, Mayor Ivan Altamirano has agreed to pay a $15,500 penalty for violating five counts of the Political Reform Act, including failing to timely file and properly disclose financial activity on a pre-election campaign statement, failing to file 24-hour contribution reports and for voting on a matter the FFPC concluded he had a financial interest in.

The proposed agreement will go before the FPPC board today for final approval. The panel will also decide on whether to approve a settlement between the agency and Baca del Rio reducing her fines down from $104,000 to $55,000.

EGP reached out to Altamirano for comment, but he he said via email he would have no comment until the case is closed.

Altamirano was appointed to the city council in March 2012 to fill the seat left vacant by former Councilman Robert Fierro who resigned after pleading guilty to a felony conspiracy charge. Altamirano was elected for the first time in March 2013.

Commere Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, is facing a $15,500 fine from the Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

Commere Mayor Ivan Altamirano, pictured above, at a city event earlier this year, is facing a $15,500 fine from the Fair Political Practices Commission. (City of Commerce)

Unlike Baca del Rio, who is accused of using campaign funds for personal expenses, Altamirano is accused of using his position to get his sister appointed to the city’s planning commission and to get approval for the installation of a stop sign near his home.

As in most cities, Commerce council members nominate members to the various city commissions and boards and for the most part the full council routinely approves those nominations.

Altamirano first moved to appoint his sister Julissa Altamirano to the city’s planning commission in November 2012. She was re-appointed in April 2013 and again in April 2015 to serve an additional 2-year term, all the time receiving the $50 a month stipend paid to commissioners.

That’s where the appointment appears to have run afoul of conflict of interest laws, accoring to FPPC.

Because Julissa is the mayor’s tenant and paid him rent for at least 10 years, she is considered a source of income to him, making her appointment a violation of the Political Reform Act, which prohibits public officials from voting on matters in which they know they have a financial interest.

Appointments to city commissions and boards are often viewed as political perks, earning the appointee money, influence or both.

At the April 2015 city council meeting, a Commerce resident questioned how commission appointments are made in the city.

“What exactly does that entail? How is that decided,” asked Sharon Basik. “What are the qualifications” needed to be appointed?

Then-mayor Lilia R. Leon responded that the city council reviews all commission applications, but went on to point out that appointments are often made based on the relationship a potential commissioner has with a member of the council.

FPPC officials have also found fault with Altamirano’s role in getting a stop sign installed within 150 feet of his home and rental property – at the intersection of Fidelia Avenue and Jillson Street – overturning a denial by the Commerce Traffic Commission in 2012.

Undeterred, Altamirano in 2014 submitted his request for a stop sign directly to the city administrator, then directly to the city council at the Feb. 3, 2015 council meeting where he personally entered a motion to reverse the Traffic Commission’s decision. The council approved his motion.

At the time, Public Works Director Maryam Babaki said her department had analyzed the traffic report used by the commission to deny the all-way stop, but using their own set of safety criteria in addition to the report, decided to recommend the stop sign as a way to improve traffic at the intersection.

“This is the only street that does not have a stop sign into Jillson [Street] from Washington Boulevard,” pointed out Altamirano from behind the dais. “There’s a lot of cars that speed through there, they are residential areas,” he added.

Altamirano went on to note that a stop sign had been approved for an intersection near the home of then-Councilman Joe Aguilar.

“I remember Leo [Street] where Councilman Aguilar, his home they didn’t have a stop sign either,” he said.

Then-Councilwoman Denise Robles asked why it had taken so long to get the appeal to the council, to which Altamirano responded that he brought the item back after receiving more complaints from residents. “I said I was going to install a stop sign myself,” he jokingly added.

According to Altamirano, he had also informed the city administrator of other intersections where there was an even greater need for a stop sign.

He argued that the stop sign installation was done to protect public safety, not to improve the market value of his property.

But according to the FPPC’s claim, “Altamirano knew or should have known he had an impermissible conflict of interest.” It goes on to state that “Altamirano made or participated in other decisions regarding improvement projects in the area in which he resides and misapplied the public generally exception.”

The exception allows public officials to vote on a matter if a significant segment of the city population would benefit from the decision.

According to the stipulation agreement, Altamirano “now understands these rules and contends that he will abide by them in the future.”

The remainder of his violations stem from his failure to turn in pre-election campaign statements before his 2013 election and failing to disclose the proper amount of expenditures made during that election. According to FPPC documents, Altamirano and his committee “Friends of Ivan Altamirano” submitted $11,054 in expenses when in fact $14,237 was spent on his campaign.

That year Altamirano also failed to disclose 17 late contributions of $1,000 each, which require 24-hour filings under the Political Reform Act.

“One of the purposes of the Act is to prevent conflicts of interest by public officials,” reads the FPPC’s document. “Another purpose of the Act is to provide adequate enforcement mechanisms so that the Act will be ‘vigorously enforced.’”

In 2011, Altamirano was fined $200 by the FPPC for failing to file a statement of economic interest when he served on the city’s planning commission.

Commerce: Altamirano Takes Over as Mayor

March 17, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Ivan Altamirano is Commerce’s new mayor following the city council’s annual reorganization Tuesday night.

Accompanied by his family, an emotional Altamirano praised his Cuban mother and Mexican father for deciding decades ago to raise him and his siblings in the “Model City.”

Tina Baca Del Rio, absent from the meeting due to illness, will continue on as mayor pro tem. Outgoing Mayor Lilia Leon’s years of service to the city was recognized with a bouquet of flowers and a plaque.

Altamirano told EGP he plans to act as the bridge between residents and the city when it comes to transparency.

“It’s time to rebuild trust, unity and peace in order to create amazing results for our community,” he said.

He also wants to focus more time on the city’s safety issues, and to work on opening a full-service Sheriff’s station in Commerce, which is currently patrolled by officers assigned to the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station.

“Our city boundaries do not keep crime nor pollution out of our city, so we must work with our residents, neighboring cities, East Yards Environmental Justice and our Sheriffs department to create solutions that will better serve our communities,” Altamirano said.

Newly appointed Mayor Ivan Altamirano and his parents Tuesday at the annual reorganization of the City Council.  (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Newly appointed Mayor Ivan Altamirano and his parents Tuesday at the annual reorganization of the City Council. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Altamirano, 42, started his involvement in city politics in 2005 as a planning commissioner. He was appointed to the council in 2012 to fill the seat left vacate when former Councilman Robert Fierro was forced to resign after pleading guilty to federal conspiracy charges. He was elected for the first time in 2013.

In 2014, Altamirano and fellow council members Del Rio, Leon and former mayor Joe Aguilar survived a recall attempt when backers were unable to gather enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

Commerce is a beautiful, well-maintained city, thanks to the efforts of the City Council and staff, Altamirano said. He said the city reminds him of Anaheim, “where Disneyland it located.”

“When I see the Southeast community, in its entirety, it brings me to believe that the City of Commerce is the ‘Anaheim’ of the Southeast area, and it is filled with tremendous potential” said the new mayor, who also recognized city businesses, the Commerce Casino, Citadel Outlets and others, for their contributions to the city.

“I can see a very clear picture of what is possible for the City of Commerce. I can see us creating a beautiful city without harming any of our programs for the residents,” he said enthusiastically.

Per tradition, Leon will continue as mayor at city events through the end of March, while Altamirano will preside over the council responsibilities, according to Commerce Spokesperson Herlinda Chico.

Chico told EGP this is done so the outgoing mayor can participate in “the biggest event in the city,” the crowning of the new Miss Commerce on March 26.

323 Bistro Offers Fresh California Cuisine

November 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The City of Commerce has a nice new place where residents and visitors to the city can spend time with family and friends while enjoying simple but tasty dishes.

Since opening last month, 323 Bistro at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Los Angeles-Commerce Casino is quickly becoming a popular hangout for people who live, work or visit the community. Its varied menu includes sandwiches, salads, soups, and a variety of other choices.

The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and room service to guests staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel: a smaller menu is offered between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Mayor Leila Leon was among many guests taking part in the October grand opening of 323 Bistro at the Crowne Plaza Hotel-Commerce Casino. (The City of Commerce)

Commerce Mayor Leila Leon was among the many guests taking part in the October grand opening of 323 Bistro at the Crowne Plaza Hotel-Commerce Casino. (The City of Commerce)

Marie Blomquist, director of food and beverage at the Crown Plaza Los Angeles-Commerce Casino, noted that the previous restaurant at the location offered Asian cuisine. But when the hotel took charge of the place the restaurant underwent a change “to a California [cuisine] menu of fresh and varied food,” Blomquist said.

The quality and freshness of the ingredients used  in 323 Bistro’s dishes can’t be overstated. It’s what guides every meal creation:

      “Say yes to fresh and raw ingredients and a fusion of flavors inspired by cultures across the earth. Real food is grown, prepared,  and plated with love–and eaten with joy,” boasts the 323 Bistro website.

The restaurant, according to Blomquist, is off to a good start, with a steady flow of customers, especially in the afternoon. In addition to its eat-in restaurant, 323 Bistro has meeting space available that can accommodate up to 100 people.

“The casino customers and hotel guests have started to notice the presence of the new outlet and have come to check us out,” Blomquist said.

Commerce Mayor Lilia Leon said that the opening of Bistro 323 is an option for those who want to enjoy something other than Asian cuisine.

“Customers will have the opportunity to enjoy a variety of foods rather than the only option they had with the Chinese restaurant,” said Leon, who attended the restaurant’s grand opening in October.

“Any new restaurant will do very well [in Commerce] because we have limited places to go to eat in the area,” said Leon, adding she’s happy that 323 Bistro offers parking validation to customers.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, the restaurant will offer traditional Thanksgiving dishes on Thursday and Friday, from 11 am to 10 pm. Plans are to offer similar service during the Christmas holiday, but the menu has not yet been set.

In addition to offering a new local dining experience, 323 Bistro has also become a source of employment for residents of the City of Commerce, Los Angeles and Orange County. The restaurant employs about 26 people, 90 percent of them Latino.

323 Bistro is located at the Crown Plaza Hotel – Casino Commerce:  6121 E. Telegraph Rd. in Commerce. It is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit  http://323bistro.com/ or call (323) 832-4311. 

 Updated: 4:03 p.m.

Copyright © 2018 Eastern Group Publications/EGPNews, Inc. ·