CERRITOS - As Tuesday's City Council election draws near, allegations of misuse of public money by council members and an advertisement calling one member a communist have put city officials at odds with the local newspaper.
All of the allegations stem from stories or advertisements in the Los Cerritos Community News, a weekly publication run by Publisher Brian Hews, who did not return several phone calls seeking comment over the past week. At the same time Hews was publishing articles about the candidates' alleged misuse of money, a political action committee that he founded was placing advertisements that called Councilwoman Carol Chen a communist agent.
She and other council members allege Hews made the allegations and published the inflammatory ad because the city had cut its advertising budget.
Chen, the only incumbent running in next Tuesday's election and one of seven candidates running for two open seats, and councilmen Jim Edwards and Bruce Barrows are accused in news stories of using city money on lavish trips. All three deny any wrongdoing.
According to the newspaper, receipts show that on two 2010 trips to Washington, D.C., the three racked up more than $12,000 in hotel fees and dined at expensive restaurants, spending more than $600 on one dinner. Also in August 2010, Hews alleges the three council members, along with five members of the Cerritos Fine Arts and Historical Commission, traveled to Colorado, spending more than $8,000 on travel and hotel fees.
In May 2010, the trio allegedly traveled to Las Vegas where they spent hundreds on dining, the Community News reported.
The Press-Telegram wasn't able to quickly obtain copies of the receipts and trip documentation from Cerritos officials because of the 10-day period the city has in which to respond to public records requests.
However, Chen, Barrows and Edwards acknowledged that they had taken the taxpayer-funded trips, but said they had paid for the meals themselves and submitted the receipts to be reimbursed by the city. Each denied any overspending during their terms.
"The city has a travel reimbursement policy that we adhere to - pretty much no different than any other city," Chen told the Press-Telegram. "I know I have personally never gone over. And besides, this is a reimbursement. This is not money that we take and you can just put in anything to be reimbursed."
According to Chen, city officials submit receipts for reimbursement, which must then be approved by the city manager.
"It's not like you can submit any number and it gets approved," she said. "The city has a policy and we can't go over. Our staff would never allow it."
According to the city's travel reimbursement and ethics training policy, city officials are reimbursed for meals at a maximum rate of $100 per day.
"They make it out that we are lavishly spending, and it's not true," Edwards said. "Our records are open. It's public documents, and I welcome the citizens of Cerritos to look at those. But to mislead people, I think that's wrong."
Ironically, city records show that during a 2010 council meeting, it was Chen who made a motion, later passed, to reduce council travel and meetings funds from $116,170 to $66,000 per year.
A trip to China last year taken by Chen, Barrows and city officials from other Southern California cities, was paid for out of their own pockets, Chen said.
"(The city) doesn't (fund) travel outside the United States," she said. "The China trip I took was part of a whole Transportation and Economic Development delegation (and) we paid our own way - we did not use any city funds to go on this trip."
The Community News provided copies of receipts from the council members' U.S. trips, but it didn't provide any such documentation for the China trip.
Charges of communism
While such investigations into the use of public money are normal during election season, it was an advertisement in the Los Cerritos Community News that especially inflamed tensions between the council members and Hews.
On Feb. 1 the newspaper paper ran a large advertisement, in bold red, showing Chen's head in profile lined up alongside the heads of past Communist leaders, including China's Mao Zedong and Russia's Joseph Stalin. The ad calls her an "agent of Communist China."
Chen described the ad as "racially motivated."
"Today, in the 21st Century, we still have this kind of prejudice in our community, using these kind of words and graphics to create a divide and cause conflict that does not exist," she said during a press conference last week.
The advertisement includes a disclaimer saying the Service Employees International Union paid for the ad, something the union's attorney adamantly denied in a letter sent to the Community News Feb. 15, a copy of which was obtained by the Press-Telegram.
After Hews was asked by the SEIU's attorney in the Feb. 15 letter who paid for the ad, he responded in an email on Feb. 18, saying that putting the SEIU's name on the ad was a "production error," and that it should have said the ad was sponsored by Citizens for Clean and Honest Government, a political action committee Hews founded.
According to the statement of organization form on file with the state, Hews is both the principal officer and treasurer of the PAC. The organization's address is the same as that of the newspaper. In his email, which Chen provided to the Press-Telegram, Hews agreed to run a "retraction."
Barrows and Edwards, who were also at last week's press conference, spoke out against the ad alleging Chen's communist connection.
"I have never seen an attack like this one before. And the part that's hard for people to understand is we support all different nationalities (campaigning) every time," he said. "(We) aren't just trying to focus on one nationality, we are trying to get the best candidate, period. To have an attack like this stumps us down to 150 years-ago type of material."
Jerry Bernstein, former editor of the Community News who worked there for 17 years, also got involved in the controversy, even though he resigned in January. Bernstein was upset by Hews' email to the union's attorney, in which Hews allegedly had identified himself as Bernstein, but which was sent weeks after Bernstein's resignation.
Bernstein denounced Hews placing the ad.
"In the beginning (Hews) did some good, made some changes and it was good. We covered the news, but you have to cover it objectively," he said. "He has gone completely overboard. Anyone who opposes him on anything is his enemy, and that's wrong."
The Community News ran another controversial ad in its Jan. 25 issue. The full-page ad was purchased by a longtime Cerritos resident who alleges that another council candidate committed adultery with his wife more than 20 years ago and ruined his marriage.
Several calls to the candidate were not answered.
Future relations seem uncertain between the local paper, city officials and organizations, said Chen.
"Cerritos is a harmonious community and we live well together," she said. "I think primarily the paper has a personal agenda - trying to create a divide between the local employees union and the council."