Political leaders thrown out of office in a recall election in South Gate drained the city's reserve in a weeklong, $2.1 million spending spree that didn't stop until hours before the new council was sworn in last month.
Starting the day they were overwhelmingly ousted from office in the Jan. 28 recall election in this city southeast of Los Angeles, former mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba and treasurer Albert Robles signed the checks with most of the money earmarked for attorneys hired by the ousted lawmakers.
The 11th-hour spending all but depleted a reserve that months earlier stood at $8 million. The information has emerged as the new council works to reconstruct the lame-duck officials' final actions.
The revelations promise a controversial finale to the former leaders' turbulent two-year reign. During that time, the city reeled from corruption investigations, civic unrest and unruly council meetings that were topped off early last month when Ruvalcaba slugged a council member in front of hundreds of residents.
The spending culminated on the officials' last day in office, Feb. 4, dubbed "crazy Tuesday" by Assistant Finance Director Yimu Chen. He said he was forced to dip into the reserve as Robles, City Manager Jesus Marez and several attorneys stood over him.
"I was basically under duress to sign the checks," Chen said.
The following day, incoming Vice Mayor Henry Gonzalez ordered stop-payments on $500,000, but said the former leaders' actions were a crippling blow to a city left on the verge of bankruptcy.
Late last month, city officials, citing the budget crunch, announced layoffs of 60 employees, and said more would follow.
Auditors from the California state controller's office, at the request of the new administration, have met with city officials to consider launching an audit. Their request was triggered by concerns over the last-minute spending and other matters. The FBI, district attorney's office, and the State Bar of California have launched numerous corruption probes in the city, many of which are ongoing.
Gonzalez said he was worried that some lawyers inflated their fees or did work that was not properly authorized. Finance Director Ken Louie said many payments went out without the City Council appropriating the funds.
"It was a feeding frenzy of attorneys, is what it was," said Mayor Hector De La Torre. "We're a government entity that's been bled dry by these lawyers."
Among the biggest beneficiaries was the city's former in-house attorney, Salvador Alva, who drew up contracts, negotiated deals and served as adviser to the council. He was paid $269,000 in the final week.
The remaining funds went to numerous outside attorneys who worked on everything from criminal cases to labor issues.
Marez, who has been placed on administrative leave by the new council, declined to comment aside from saying that everything he did was legal. All told, the former officials issued $1.35 million for legal bills. The week's total is almost triple the annual amount South Gate has spent on attorneys in years past.
Ruvalcaba refused to comment. Robles did not return calls.
While it is unclear whether the payments were legal, political observers said the final actions were at best a "brazen" display of governmental malfeasance.
"I think that the recall election victory was a high for everybody, but we're finding out . . . that all the machinations and violation of the public trust continued," said Jaime Regalado, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
"And in some ways, we still don't know the myriad of ways that they really defrauded the public. . . . It's hard to believe anybody could be so brazen."