17/09/2021

In El Monte, a near friendship shatters over cannabis vote, operation payment

Just one was a lobbyist and the other was a City Council member, but they also have been most effective buddies who believed they had a unique bond.

Sigrid Lopez and Victoria Martinez Muela traveled collectively on a excursion to Cuba. Lopez attended her friend’s 2017 wedding ceremony. The two were like sisters, Martinez Muela explained, and each have been crucial figures in San Gabriel Valley politics.

But the friendship shattered when Martinez Muela, a member of the El Monte Metropolis Council, voted towards permitting retail revenue of hashish in the metropolis, a proposal that Lopez had championed.

Now, Lopez has signed a sworn declaration as aspect of a complaint submitted to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s business office in May alleging that Martinez Muela may have accepted a $1,100 present from her for a healthcare technique and failed to disclose it on economic statements, in violation of the state’s political ethics law.

Lopez reported in an job interview the cash was for breast augmentation surgical procedure for Martinez Muela.

In interviews with The Times, Martinez Muela did not deny accepting the financial help, but also said she did nothing at all improper. Lopez, she claimed, was a generous close friend who also drove her to and from the technique, and cared for her afterward.

The district attorney’s workplace is reviewing the grievance, a spokesman stated. It was lodged by Andre Quintero, a prosecutor with the Los Angeles metropolis attorney’s business and a previous El Monte mayor who has clashed with Martinez Muela.

In the same declaration, Lopez claimed she also supplied Martinez Muela monetary help (she mentioned she could not keep in mind the exact date) to support sort a nonprofit. The declaration doesn’t specify the quantity, but in an job interview, Lopez reported it was $1,500. Lopez and Martinez Muela are shown in condition business enterprise filings as officers for a charity termed Angel’s Advocate, Inc. Martinez Muela acknowledged receiving support but could not remember the total. The project in the long run never ever acquired off the ground.

Lopez instructed The Situations she paid $5,000 in charges for Martinez Muela on the Cuba journey a number of yrs in the past, together with lodge, airfare, rum and cigars. The allegation is not aspect of the complaint submitted to the district attorney’s office environment. Martinez Muela said the two traveled alongside one another, but she paid her individual way and that Lopez didn’t invest in her rum and cigars.

They equally insist theirs was a authentic friendship: Lopez said any gifts or money she bestowed were not meant to impact conclusions by Martinez Muela and the councilwoman reported she voted on theory and did not favor her pal.

Martinez Muela, who also is effective for a psychological overall health nonprofit, insists the grievance is payback for having cast herself as a corruption fighter, elevating alarms around conflicts of curiosity at City Corridor and alleged shady dealings linked to cannabis licensing.

She and Quintero, who was mayor for 11 many years, had been portion of opposing political factions on the council, and she accuses him of exerting handle about Lopez, who now owns pot firms that are outlined as get-togethers of desire in a lawsuit alleging a pay-to-engage in scheme in the competitiveness for hashish licenses in the city. Lopez, in the meantime, explained she only signed the declaration about her alleged gift to Martinez Muela simply because she could be deposed in the lawsuit.

Both of those gals reported they feel employed and betrayed by the other.

Specialists claimed they’re not amazed the tipping level arose about cannabis, which has turn into a beneficial source of profits and fostered corruption in some cities following legalization of recreational use in California.

Adam Spiker, executive director of the nonprofit Southern California Coalition, the Southland’s largest marijuana trade affiliation, mentioned hashish is a wedge difficulty that “certainly can exacerbate the political divide.”

Lopez, 52, and Martinez Muela, 48, achieved at a political function in Sacramento in 2011, right after the councilwoman was 1st elected.

Lopez was a lobbyist for El Monte’s bus route and dial-a-ride contractor, which has a services settlement worthy of thousands and thousands of bucks. Her position was to make sure the council members have been content with the business.

Affable and with a knack for making relationships, she reported she formed a exclusive connection with Martinez Muela, anyone she “looked up to … like the common girl in superior school.”

“After a while I didn’t look at her as a political formal, I seemed at her as my ideal good friend,” Lopez stated.

In 2016, the 7 days prior to Christmas, Lopez stated Martinez Muela questioned her for a individual favor. Martinez Muela was about to undertake breast augmentation surgical procedures, but could not pay back the whole value and asked for a personal loan, Lopez mentioned.

Lopez reported she agreed to include the hole. On Dec. 29 that 12 months, she said she drove Martinez Muela to the clinic of Dr. Daniel J. Casper, a beauty surgeon in Pasadena, for the method. Though there, she explained she paid out $1,100 to Casper making use of a debit card.

The declaration integrated an hooked up financial institution assertion showing a payment from one particular of Lopez’s organization accounts to Casper. The doctor did not reply to requests for remark.

Martinez Muela reported the breast augmentation was necessary for a clinical affliction. She would not comment on no matter whether she disclosed the payment as essential. She disputed Lopez’s characterization of the funds as a personal loan, but declined to elaborate. Despite the fact that not unlawful, financial loans to political figures should be compensated back and terms set, or else they are specified as items.

Records show that Martinez Muela did not report the economic assistance on demanded money disclosure statements.

Bob Stern, coauthor of the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act, claimed Martinez Muela may possibly have violated the prohibition on general public officers accepting pricey presents from men and women with an desire in influencing their decisions, this sort of as lobbyists. She also may well have violated the law by not disclosing the gift, he claimed.

At the time of the course of action, elected officials could not take gifts totaling extra than $460 yearly from a one source, the complaint noted.

There are some exceptions, these kinds of as presents from extended-time own pals and functions of human compassion. But Stern explained individuals exceptions did not apply simply because Lopez initially satisfied Martinez Muela when she was an elected formal, and Lopez was symbolizing a firm with organization just before the council.

“The visual appeal of this, regardless of whether it is authorized or not, is not superior at all. It genuinely reveals a lack of ethical comprehension,” Stern reported. “Clearly, the elected official should have recognised improved.”

At the time Lopez allegedly paid out for her friend’s surgery, she labored as a lobbyist for Southland Transit, which was looking for to renew its bus solutions agreement.

On Jan. 24, 2017, a lot less than a month right after the payment, Martinez Muela joined the council in a 4- vote to approve contract extensions with Southland Transit worthy of virtually $700,000, metropolis information show. That Could, Martinez-Muela was absent when the council authorized a two-12 months, $3-million contract with the firm.

Lopez stated the enterprise under no circumstances knew about any of her gifts to Martinez Muela. The company’s vice president, Jason Snow, said the business enterprise hardly ever licensed any these presents and “never would have approved” of them.

Also in 2017, a hashish organization hired Lopez as a lobbyist to protected the City Council’s assist for an ordinance that would enable cultivation in the metropolis, Lopez said.

Lopez stated she lobbied Martinez Muela and reviewed the proposal with her above lunch at an Italian cafe in Los Angeles.

Martinez Muela voted that November to grant ultimate approval for the ordinance. The vote was 3-, with two other council customers absent.

More than a year afterwards, the council accredited cannabis cultivation, processing and distribution jobs in close proximity to the border with Temple Metropolis and Rosemead. Martinez Muela voted in favor of the assignments.

But when the Metropolis Council accredited steps in November 2019 to also permit retail sales, Martinez Muela forged a dissenting vote and on social media described the coalition of pot supporters as “outsiders.” Lopez explained she took the remark as an insult that confirmed Martinez Muela positioned politics previously mentioned their friendship.

“She could have just abstained,” Lopez explained.

“Please never enable this … problem crack us,” Martinez Muela suggests she wrote in a text information, in one of their ultimate exchanges soon after the vote.

Lopez reported she blocked her friend’s number and never ever spoke to her once more.

Martinez Muela said she’d warned Lopez of her final decision.

“That’s the change between politicians and public servants. I am your mate but I have to vote this way because my community needs it of me,” she said.

Given that then, she’s known as for a point out audit of the town and supports accusations in the lawsuit over the city’s hashish license scoring procedure that alleges a fork out-to-perform scheme in which businesses that designed tens of thousands of pounds in campaign contributions won licenses.

She accused Lopez of colluding with Quintero, the former mayor who brought the complaint to the district attorney’s business, and recent town officials to include up corruption.

Quintero denied he contacted the district attorney’s office environment for political causes, asserting it was his responsibility as a citizen to report any alleged illegal conduct to the right authorities.

“It’s unfortunate that she would check out to deflect in this way,” Quintero said.

Martinez Muela’s opponents have seized on Lopez’s present allegations to accuse her of hypocrisy.

“She’s generating unfounded allegations about corruption by every person else all-around her, and she’s been trying to keep this mystery about her have conduct,” mentioned Councilwoman Maria Morales. “It’s just astonishing.”

Lopez stated she signed the sworn declaration on the advice of her lawyer, who reported that she would probable be deposed in the shell out-to-engage in lawsuit and asked below oath about payments to town officials. In her declaration, Lopez said that she’s in no way offered financial help to any other El Monte council members.

Lopez, no for a longer period a lobbyist, now has her have cannabis corporations, including a dispensary in Maywood. In El Monte, her individual enterprises have drawn notice following receiving two of the 6 dispensary licenses awarded by the town. These choices ended up managed by the employees and an outdoors advisor, and the council didn’t vote on them.

Lopez denies owning any impact over the system.

Asked what she believed about the friendship in retrospect — no matter whether it was authentic, or just rooted in politics, Martinez Muela mentioned, “it’s a unhappy issue all politicians have to consider.”

“They normally say, when you are in office most people will choose your simply call,” she mentioned.