California’s ‘corridor of corruption’ yields new case

By Dan Walters | |

Six years ago, the HBO network aired an episode of “True Detective,” an anthology of complicated crime stories.

It was set in the fictional Southern California city of Vinci, a cesspool of corruption and crime obviously based on Vernon, once described as “the most corrupt five square miles in California.”

In addition to fictionalizing Vernon’s sordid history, the episode folded in California’s bullet train project, but it was deservedly flailed by critics as incoherent.

Vernon, unfortunately, is not an isolated example. The southeastern quadrant of Los Angeles County is rife with municipal malfeasance, and was once dubbed a “corridor of corruption” by state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Numerous local officials have been charged with bribery, self-dealing and other transgressions.

Last week, the Los Angeles County district attorney charged four men, including former state Sen. Frank Hill, with stealing $20 million that the City of Industry advanced to a company called San Gabriel Valley Water and Power LLC for a solar power project that never materialized.

The case stems from a battle among several cities for control of a 2,500-acre cattle ranch called Tres Hermanos in the Chino Hills, which was to have been the project’s site.

Hill, a Republican who was snared in a federal investigation of Capitol corruption three decades ago and spent four years in prison, was a consultant on the project. Others facing charges are William Barkett, owner of San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, attorney Anthony Bouza, and former Industry City Manager Paul Philips, now city manager of Bell, the scene of another corruption scandal a decade ago.

Philips and Bouza allegedly handled the funds, which between 2016 and 2018 were routed to an account controlled by Barkett, according to the district attorney’s office.

“While some of the money was paid to other vendors, Barkett is accused of spending about $8.3 million on personal items. He also allegedly falsified or altered invoices to inflate the amount,” the DA’s office said.

Barkett is no stranger to questionable financial dealings. As I wrote about the Tres Hermanos squabble nine months ago, “In 1993, federal authorities unsealed an indictment of him and eight other persons involved in what was described as a penny stock scheme aimed at defrauding elderly retirees.

“Two years later, the charges were dismissed by a judge, who cited unreasonable pre-trial delays by prosecutors. A decade later, Credit Suisse, an international banking company, accused Barkett of misappropriating millions of dollars he had borrowed to launch a large farming operation in the San Joaquin Valley. The suit was later dropped after a confidential settlement.”

Barkett is the scion of a politically powerful Stockton family and in the interest of full disclosure, the head of the family sued me and the Sacramento Union for libel four decades ago after I wrote a column about his influence. We were exonerated by a San Joaquin County jury.

The City of Industry is also no stranger to corruption allegations. In 2009 the Los Angeles Times probed the city’s insular structure, revealing, as it noted last week, that “for years, the city government was headed by former Mayor Dave Perez, who owned trash-hauling and maintenance companies that racked up millions of dollars a year in contracts with the city…”

“An audit years later by KPMG found that Perez’s companies had made a fortune off the city, with contracts valued at more than $326 million,” the Times reported.

Once again, the corridor of corruption yields a case of insider dealing, but it’s not the first and won’t be the last. The corridor’s surface has barely been scratched.


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