HUNTINGTON PARK - The mere mention of county Assessor John Noguez around his old haunts in Huntington Park exposes deep divisions in the city of 58,000 that lies on west bank of the Los Angeles River.
To some Noguez's recent arrest on suspicion of 24 felonies, including solicitation of bribes and misuse of public funds, only exacerbated wounds that have been festering since Noguez was appointed city clerk in 2001.
To others, like his attorney, any allegations of impropriety by Noguez, currently held in county jail in lieu of $1.16 million bail, comes from folks jumping on the bandwagon.
"Mr. Noguez has been honored to serve his community and has done so ethically and legally," said Michael Proctor, his attorney. "The current case will be fought in court, and other pile on allegations we are not going to respond to right now."
Nonetheless, Noguez is suspected of reducing property tax bills for his campaign donors. In return, Noguez allegedly took $185,000 in campaign cash and payments.
He was arrested along with long-time political ally Ramin Salari and Deputy County Assessor Mark McNeil.
The trio face stiff prison sentences if convicted. Some say its the tip of the iceberg and the outcome of years of corrupt practices by the onetime golden boy of Huntington Park.
"It's unfortunate that it has taken this long, and that the citizens of Huntington Park have had to live this long in such a corrupt climate," said Marilyn Sanabria, founder of Huntington Park Citizens Unite, a city watchdog group.
In the beginning
The tussle between competing points of view is nothing new in Huntington Park
"It's been like this for more than 20 years," resident Alex Young said.
Young moved to the city as its demographics began to change from a prodominently white community to a mostly Latino one.
"It became very contentious in the mid-1980s," Young said. "Latinos started to come in and flex their power."
It was in that environment that young Juan Renaldo Rodriguez, a Roosevelt High School and Cal State Los Angeles, cut his teeth.
Huntington Park City Councilwoman Rosario Marin took the young man, who had become John Noguez under her wing.
Marin served as Noguez' political mentor. And, like her apprentice, Marin knew how to turn a part-time political post into a career. First elected to the Huntington Park City Council in 1994, in 2001 Marin was appointed Treasurer of the United States by President George Bush.
"Here was the very good looking guy, kind of smooth, being shown around by Rosario Marin," said former Huntinton Park City Councilwoman Linda Caraballo. "He comes out of nowhere and Rosario Marin introduces him as Mr. Huntington Park," Caraballo added.
But she would later discover that Noguez was actually Juan Renaldo Rodriguez. He would later go by another name, but would never legally change his name, according to court documents. He was also married and openly gay.
Caraballo became suspicious and she started to keep tabs on the man known as Noguez.
In 2001, Marin appointed Noguez to the city clerk post, giving him a foothold in Huntington Park politics, according to city documents.
Marin abruptly left the Bush administration in 2003. She later admitted to three ethics violations during her time as secretary of the California State and Consumer Services Agency between 2004 and 2009.
In 2003, Noguez was ready for a run of his own.
Before the beginning
Founded in 1906, Huntington Park, like Huntington Beach, takes its name from railroad kingpin Henry Huntington. The city was built to house factory workers as Los Angeles was in the throes of its first expansion.
The city borders Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, Southgate and Los Angeles. Its commercial corridor, which runs east to west along Florence Avenue bustles with people walking on wide sidewalks lined with pepper and palm trees.
The town's original planners promised to name the new city after Huntington, then a resident of San Marino, if he brought his coveted Pacific Electric Railroad through town. He did. They kept their promise.
As manufacturing began to decline in the 1970s and aerospace plants began to close shop, the mostly white descendants of Huntington Park's first settlers fled to the far flung suburbs connected by newly constructed freeways.
Residents like Young say despite the change in complexion, very little else differs from those early days.
"The problem in Huntington Park is that the politicians are about the politicians. They say `damn the citizens I am going to get what I want,"' said Young.
Elected to office
Noguez's critics contend that as soon as he was elected to his first term as a City Councilman in 2003, he began putting together a political machine.
Caraballo and others claim City Council, led by Noguez, gave contracts to political campaign contributors and intimidated their opponents. Noguez said his detractors were sore losers.
About the same time, critics contend, Noguez brought attorney Francisco Leal into the picture.
In 2003, Leal became Huntington Park's contract city attorney. In the nine years since, Leal he has earned $4 million for work as city attoney, city lobbyist and legal counsel to the Huntington Park redevelopment agency.
The city now faces a $9 million budget deficit.
"Leal was basically a nobody attorney until Noguez got into office. And then all of a sudden he is getting these expensive legal fees," said John Wong, who ran against Noguez for county assessor in 2010.
On October 15, just two days before Noguez's arrest, Leal resigned. That same night all five members of the city council were served with recall papers alleging fiscal mismanagement.
The recall cites leal's fees, which he defended in an interview with a KABC-TV reporter who asked if he billed too much.
"Not really when you compare it to other cities," Leal said. "And it's not my money, it's a law firm."
Noguez, employed as a deputy assessor during his time on the City Council dias, left city government in 2010 when he was elected Los Angeles County Assessor.
Much of his legal trouble stems from that race.
Noguez's arrest on Oct. 17 only served to intensify the pitched battle between two camps which have formed in Huntington Park.
One camp believes the city is a hotbed for corrupt politicians, and cites Noguez's arrest as well as prior corruption cases made against former city council members Ed Escareno and Marin as proof of a corrupt culture within city government.
The other side calls its critics malcontents.
Frustrations have boiled over in recent weeks, as each side lobbed allegations at their rivals during a recent City Council meeting.
At one point Caraballo - who was convicted in 2002 for perjury; eventually the charges were overturned - engaged in a shouting match with resident Veronica Lopez, who defended the City Council.
Other shouting matches took place between residents that caused officials to beg for order. Those calls were largely ignored.
Carballo believes the tension, the repercussions and recriminations could have been avoided had law enforcement looked into Noguez a decade ago - when allegations about his practices first surfaced.
"Had the D.A.'s office did something back then, the county would have more money in its coffers. We are going to spend $2 or $3 million to prosecute this case," Caraballo said. "We can throw all these people behind bars but what about the restitution to the people of Los Angeles County?"