A Breach of Faith:
Who is the Real Jose Huizar?
By Edward Rivera
Arroyo Seco Journal
When Jose Huizar filed in 2005 to run for the vacant 14th District seat of newly elected mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, many political observers were as yet aware of the surprising power the mayor could wield in seemingly “anointing a” a successor. As Villaraigosa’s endorsee, Huizar overwhelmingly defeated a field of candidates, which included former Councilmember Nick Pacheco.
Now however, as Huizar faces an election challenge from his former field director Alvin Parra, and a loosely organized revolt from former staffers, it seems many in the district find themselves wondering exactly who it was they voted for.
An Arroyo Seco Journal investigation has revealed a wide dissension within the Councilman’s office, and has uncovered several new allegations.
o Huizar refused to act when his staff urged him to take action against a convicted child molester who had attempted to prey on the children of Huizar’s own staff.
o Huizar signed misleading documents to cover up an illegal improvement to an El Sereno residence while he served as an LAUSD Board member.
o After being informed by his staff that a Boyle Heights hazardous Waste transfer station was applying to the state to expand its operation, Huizar failed to act, even after being urged to do by State Assemblyman Gil Cedillo. The waste station, directly across the street from the new Sears mixed-use development, will go into expanded operations in February.
Over the course of its investigation, The Arroyo Seco Journal spoke with community activists, former members of Huizar’s staff, and local residents who had cast their vote for Huizar in the landslide that was his victory.
What emerges is a portrait of an ambitious politician who is often more concerned with the image and trappings of the office than a deep concern for the constituents.
In fact no local politician in the last 25 years has engendered as much dissatisfaction as Huizar. Not even Mike Hernandez, whose penchant for office sex and vodka, along with a serious cocaine habit, was legendary.
“People loved Mike Hernandez,” laughed one longtime political observer.
Many constituents expressed an overriding feeling that Huizar is a councilmember without a “big picture” vision. Others went so far as to say they feel ignored by his office.
“His leadership is sorely lacking,” said one longtime Glassell Park activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He is reluctant to take a solid position on a variety of issues, and too often he tries to straddle the fence,” she continued.
“ This could be a lack of experience and an unwillingness to stick his bead into something, but the 14th district needs a very strong advocate in that position.
“I would like to have he and his staff more directly engage the community and formulate a more specific progressive direction, and then put that into action.”
Local activist Maureen Blatt posted on a local website, “Mr Villaraigosa beat Mr Pacheco. Mr V promised to support the area. Mr. V promised he would stay. He lied. He became Mayor. Mr. V and the "machine" gave the position in CD14 to Mr Huizar with money, endorsement, etc., and a matrix for success. ... What he has done is too little, and too late. Mr. Huizar has told people that he is going to the state assembly in the next two years.”
Much of the dissatisfaction with the office has come from a staff that has seen what they consider Huizar’s lack of interest in day-to day issues.
“A lot of the original motivation for electing him was “Anyone but Nick Pacheco,” recalled former Field Deputy Alvin Parra, the only former staffer willing to discuss the councilmember on the record. Parra worked as the policy director for Huizar’s campaign, said he very soon came to believe he “had joined the wrong campaign.”
“He asked me, after I had agreed to work on his staff, ‘What does a field director do?”
Then, early on after taking office, Huizar began losing employees. And not replacing them.
Only very recently, with an election approaching, has Huizar had a full compliment of deputies.
Six months after Huizar took office, two field deputies were handling 150-200 cases in El Sereno, more than three times the usual caseload.
LA City Councilmembers have a $1.5 million budget to pay for employees, but Huizar was either not spending any money on new employees or spending too much on the employees he hired.
“Salaries are discretionary,” said one staffer, “but every time we complained about the lack of staff, we were told, ‘It’s a budget issue.’”
Finally in early summer Huizar hired a new employee--Roberto Aceves, a personal driver.
Then, according to Parra and other staffers, Huizar began to quickly lose interest in the weekly policy meetings.
“He would yawn, and look at his watch. He just was not interested.”
The Friday policy meetings were eventually cancelled in June of 2006.
District office hours were also becoming a problem. Originally, there were 2 hours per community per week where the councilmember would be available to deal directly with constituents.
But, as one staffer remembered, “He was unhappy with the open house meetings. He didn’t want to be bothered with constituents. He wanted the staff to handle them.”
It became serious enough that a internal follow-up e-mail was circulated that reiterated Chief of Staff Joe Avila’s emphasis that the ‘Councilmember prefers that staff (to the greatest extent possible) handle casework and irate constituents to avoid having (Huizar) experience them.”
The e-mail then asked at what level Huizar should encounter constituents directly (“Only Chamber Presidents, NC Leaders, CBOs, Educational Leader-types...?).
But there were bigger problems in the district.
Industrial Oil Corporation, owners of a large waste transfer station on Soto Street in Boyle Heights, had applied to the state for a Part B permit to increase its capacity and the amount of dangerous chemicals it would handle daily.
The station is located in the middle of a residential area and near railroad tracks and schools.
In the spring of 2006, Huizar’s staff alerted him to the problem and the potential public relations disaster brewing just across the street from the new Sears development. Huizar would not take a stand, curiously telling the staff, “I might have to vote on it later.”
County Supervisor Gloria Molina had previously voted against expansion and State Senator Gil Cedillo’s staff also came to Huizar’s office to remind him of the Tanner Act, state legislation which mandates an Environmental Impact Report and extensive community outreach in such cases.
For approximately six months there was no position or response from Huizar’s office.
In October, Senator Cedillo’s office held a briefing on the Tanner Act for City Council members and staff. Councilmember Ed Reyes sent a representative. Huizar did not.
On December 18, the state approved the Part B Permit without any community involvement or input whatsoever. The station will begin expanded operations on February 2.
Remarked Parra, “But let 20 garage doors in Mt. Washington get tagged and watch him spring into action.”
Huizar has been almost a model of responsiveness in Mt. Washington, a vocal and politically active community, but the lion’s share of the credit for that would have to go to his field deputy Amy Yeager, a fireball seemingly involved in every single local issue in her area.
Indeed, when a host of garages in Mt. Washington were tagged in one night this past December, something that occurs often in Boyle Heights and El Sereno, Yeager organized a community meeting to immediately respond to the neighborhood’s concerns.
(Note: Councilmember Huizar’s office did not respond to a list of questions or an offer of a phone interview for this article, which was e-mailed to him and his former Chief of Staff Tony Ricasa.)
Huizar’s confounding inability to respond to local issues has ranged from issues like the Southwest Museum (He told The Arroyo Seco Journal last August that he and Councilmember Reyes would be “issuing a statement on the issue in two weeks.” No such statement ever materialized), to a dangerous issue which affected a member of his own staff.
On July 11, 2006, Huizar’s office and the Department of Water and Power co-sponsored a giveaway of energy-efficient light bulbs in El Sereno. It was the picture-perfect event with media coverage and lots of community residents in attendance. (Huizar later told his staff he graded the event a “C” because the light bulbs did not have his name on the boxes.)
The next day staff member Cecelia Alatorre received an anonymous phone call from a constituent. A man had come to her home, wanting to take pictures of her children for a “program book” the council office was preparing.
As Alatorre described the suspect to the staff, others remembered the man photographing children at the DWP event.
The man’s name was Henry James Lugo, a convicted sex offender out on parole. He lived on Huizar’s block. With the help of local police officers Lugo was identified. But as yet, he had committed no crime.
Efren Mamaril, an Eagle Rock staff member, recognized Lugo immediately. Some weeks earlier, Lugo had attempted to take pictures of Mamaril’s own son at an Eagle Rock event.
“He tried to take my son,” Mamaril told the staff at a meeting.
When police officers questioned Lugo at his home, they found boxes of the free light bulbs.
Ricasa wanted to get Lugo off the streets as soon as possible. When he told Huizar, Huizar responded. “Do whatever you want, but my name should not be attached.”
Ricasa was livid. He told Huizar, “You are messing up!”
Huizar responded, “Just don’t use my name!”
The staff was in a bind. They had no evidence that would put Lugo back in prison, and the councilmember refused to back them, anyway.
Almost out of ideas, a staff member checked the conditions of Lugo’s parole. And there it was—Lugo could not possess a camera.
Lugo was subsequently arrested and is currently serving an 18-month sentence for parole violation.
Said Parra, ‘This affected me personally. And Jose has two daughters. Did he not care anymore, just because he doesn’t live on that block anymore?” (Huizar had since moved off La Calandria, where Lugo had lived.)
That home had issues of its own as well.
The basic story is that the hillside home at 4903 La Calandria Way, which Huizar purchased in 1999 while a member of the LAUSD, was improved three times between 2000 and 2005.
In 2000, minor improvements were made by the “owner,” Drew Smith and the Drew Smith Trust.
In 2003, Huizar applied to replace wood studs due to termite rot. The owner of the home was listed as Bousrah and Miriam Attalah, of Alhambra. Huizar is listed as the owner/builder. He signed the application in his tiny printing and then dashed off his signature. “D. Chang and “L.Quirante,” of the Department of Building and Safety, approved the job.
In 2005, Huizar then applied to convert 95 square feet of basement storage to a new bathroom and “legalize” 400 square feet of family room behind the existing glass door ...” This, according to LA regulations is an illegal improvement, something the average citizen would not be allowed to do. The improvement would exceed the room allowed on the lot for setbacks. The addition of the 400 square feet also creates a new construction, which would not be allowed.
Said one local architect, “I have been building homes in Northeast LA for 30 years, and I don’t know one City building inspector who would allow such an addition.”
But what is even more curious about the construction is that for the major improvement permit application, once again Drew Smith, the original seller, is listed as the owner. Jose Huizar is not listed anywhere on the application, but on the signature page is his now-familiar dashed-off signature, but without his name printed alongside. The mysterious Boushra Atallah does not appear either.
Yet somehow, five years after the sale of a home, the original owner’s name appears on a permit to improve the house and the applicant attempts, somewhat clumsily, to hide his identity.
The illegal home improvement is not the smoking gun or single indictment that buries Huizar, but it does speak to a visible pattern of fudging the truth or speaking conveniently when the situation warrants. Over the course of our investigation, numerous accounts came forward about Huizar either openly lying to a constituent or promising something that never came to pass. (At a recent LA County Democratic Committee meeting, he claimed endorsements he didn’t have, for example.)
Clearly, there is a wide sense of disappointment across the district with regard to the service his office provides and the lack of vision he has generated.
The March 6 election will be a strong test of the Mayor’s influence and endorsement power. Opponent Parra will have to either bring out, or find, big guns to stop the Huizar machine.
Editor’s note: The Arroyo Seco Journal (www.asjournal.net) serves Northeast Los Angeles, and has not made an endorsement in the 14th District City Council race.