By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido voted several times to aid a controversial vending-truck business in which his father was involved
Minutes before six on a late December morning, the first rays of sunlight break over the horizon to cast a pinkish hue on the vine-covered, nine-foot-tall concrete wall that protects a 40,000-square-foot industrial warehouse at 2520 S. Birch St. in a seedy industrial section of Santa Ana. Two rotting palm trees flank the property, home to Abel Food Services Inc., which distributes food and supplies to the city’s mobile taco vending trucks. Men, some wearing straw cowboy hats, yell in Spanish at each other while they load boxes of food and drinks into the vehicles. From its perch on a telephone wire, a lone black crow watches over the activity; two dozen seagulls circle overhead, land to grab discarded food and, before departing, leave evidence of their presence with ubiquitous grayish-white excrement.
The air smells of nauseating, ripe trash. Fences are topped with rusty barbed wire. Ground zero for the city’s murders and robberies is a few blocks away. A lanky, homeless man who looks to be in his 30s walks by pushing a noisy red Target shopping cart loaded with his possessions stuffed in 13 plastic trash bags. The crumbling street is littered with broken Bud Light bottles, cigarette butts, dozens of flattened fast-food drink containers, a used condom, a beef-and-bean chimichanga wrapper, broken CDs, faded newspapers, a fifth of someone’s MasterCard, insect-infested pizza boxes and a large, shattered mirror. A second grime-covered homeless man in his 30s or 40s walks by. He’s pushing a warped mattress on top of a shopping cart. A disgusting, old, green toothbrush protrudes from his right rear pocket.
At this point in the morning, Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana’s natty eight-term Democratic mayor, is probably asleep four miles away—on a much nicer mattress—in the city’s Floral Park neighborhood. The exclusive enclave is the home of numerous old-money families who have their own luxury planes or yachts and vacation homes in places like Aspen. Pulido entered politics two decades ago while living in a $300-a-month apartment. Nowadays, he lives in a 1.7-acre multihouse compound where the land alone is worth more than $1 million.
Yet this is the spot where Pulido and two other rich and powerful men met without fanfare in the spring of 2007 to do some business. According to documents obtained by the Weekly—including court filings—they dreamed that their arrangement would win big profits from the city’s Latino population, which traditionally supports a brisk business in food and drinks from vending trucks. Part of their plan included controlling close to half of all the licensed food trucks in the city.
Despite disclosure laws designed to expose public officials’ potential conflicts of interest, Pulido’s role in Abel Food Services Inc. was a secret.
Even with Pulido’s assistance, the business failed messily. Depending on who is talking, anywhere from $450,000 to somewhat more than $1 million went missing. Although no criminal charges were filed over the dispuite, civil court records bristle with angry cries of gross mismanagement, fraud and embezzlement. At one point in 2008, hostilities grew so intense at the warehouse that Santa Ana police manned a four-hour watch at the business to prevent violence. Later, Mohammad R. “Hamid” Hojati—one of the involved businessmen—declared in court and under penalty of perjury that he’d been duped after the mayor convinced him to commit almost $1.9 million to Abel Food.
Why did he make that investment? An exasperated Hojati wrote, “I trusted Mayor Pulido.”
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Private vending-truck operations are undoubtedly a multimillion-dollar annual business in Santa Ana. What isn’t certain is who owns what. Bureaucrats working under Pulido have taken the preposterous position that vending licenses granted by the city government are secret documents. As one clerk told the Weekly twice during the reporting of this story, “You don’t need to know.”
But other documents reveal that a man named Abel Salazar has a city-approved warehouse food license and a county health department certificate. He launched Abel Food Services Inc. in 2004 after getting a $430,000 federal government-backed Small Business Administration (SBA) loan through Fullerton Community Bank. He then signed a $26,000-a-month lease for that 40,000-square-foot portion of the 140,000-square-foot warehouse property on South Birch Street. First Standard Real Estate LLC owns the property. Businessman George Gemayel—a longtime Pulido pal—owns First Standard.
Salazar and Abel Food planned to offer one-stop shopping for vending-truck operators needing daily supplies of food, drinks, truck fuel, cooking fuel, mechanical assistance, cleaning services and overnight parking. According to documents obtained by the Weekly, vendors signed contracts promising Abel Food the right to be the exclusive provider of all services and products. Some vendors were required to pay $35 per day for overnight parking and buy $150 worth of food or supplies. Others had to purchase $250 worth of supplies each day and pay $25 to park. At one point, nearly 100 of the city’s 240 or so vendors pumped cash—as much as $450,000 per month, according to court documents—into Abel Food coffers. Even so, hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent, utilities and food supplies went unpaid. In 2008, Gemayel, the landlord, threatened to break the lease and run his own vending-truck operation from the location.