Based on various court documents and interviews, Mayor Pulido objected to Gemayel interfering with Abel Food. Perhaps it was mere coincidence, but part of the vending company’s revenue may have regularly landed inside the mayor’s home compound. According to revelations made in court, Miguel Pulido, Sr., the mayor’s 83-year-old father, had a financial interest in the business. The extent of that interest is unclear, but court documents assert that he performed at least one very specific task. According to a Sept. 29, 2008 court declaration from Reza Hojati, Hamid Hojati’s wife and one of the managers at the warehouse, “Miguel Pulido Sr. would take the monies [from the warehouse] and deposit them in the bank.”

But the mayor never publicly announced his or his father’s ties to Abel Salazar, their longtime friend, or Abel Food. He didn’t reveal that the company’s $550-an-hour lawyer, Ronald Rus, had been appointed by Pulido’s City Council to a city commission. Or that the company’s accountant, Jim Pleman, was the same man the mayor uses in his private business dealings. Or that he sat on the board of directors of the Fullerton Community Bank that gave Abel Food the critical SBA start-up loan. Underscoring these direct ties was the fact that on two occasions—April 18, 2005, and June 5, 2006—Pulido voted four times on Santa Ana City Council ordinances that specifically singled out Abel Food for concessions that enhanced the company’s profitability.

At the April 2005 meeting, Salazar got Latham & Watkins lawyer/lobbyist Jerry A. King to seek City Council permission for overnight parking of the vending trucks at the South Birch Street warehouse. The move would allow Abel Food to charge for the service. Councilmembers Lisa Bist and Jose Solorio asked for a public hearing on the issue. But Councilman Carlos Bustamante and the mayor blocked the suggestion, going on to push for immediate approval of Salazar’s request in a 4-3 vote.

A portion of the September 2008 agreement showing that the mayor's father would take control of Abel Food Services' daily revenue
A portion of the September 2008 agreement showing that the mayor's father would take control of Abel Food Services' daily revenue
A portion of a 2008 court declaration by businessman Hamid Hojati linked Mayor Pulido to the  vending-truck business
A portion of a 2008 court declaration by businessman Hamid Hojati linked Mayor Pulido to the vending-truck business

In June 2006, Salazar returned to the City Council, this time wanting a second variance of his conditional use permit: the right to wash and clean “all types of vending vehicles” at night. This time, Councilwomen Bist and Claudia Alvarez asked to continue the item for two weeks for additional study. Pulido got four of his colleagues to block that move and then immediately granted Salazar’s request.

In the view of Charles E. McClung Jr., Pulido’s Laguna Beach-based lawyer, those votes aren’t questionable because the mayor’s financial interest in Abel Food has been “zero.”

If that assertion is correct, the mayor may have observed the letter of the law but violated its spirit, according to Robert Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, an expert in political ethics and the man who helped write California’s conflict-of-interest code in 1974.

“If he hasn’t taken any money from the business, then it’s not a legal conflict of interest,” Stern said. “But it’s certainly a moral conflict. He’s had a clear, ethical obligation to at least disclose his father’s connection to a business whose matters went before the City Council.”

*     *     *

Miguel Angel Pulido is a Mexico City native who arrived here in 1961 unable to speak a word of English. He initially gained his political strength from the largest per-capita concentration of Mexican-Americans (and illegal immigrants) in the United States. In Santa Ana, it’s not uncommon to encounter large groups of people who don’t speak English, live in dire poverty and/or proudly hoist the Mexican national flag, not Old Glory, over their front porches. But any assumptions one might make based upon those facts about the 54-year-old vegetarian’s stances on policy issues would likely be wrong.

Pulido’s interest in politics was sparked in storybook fashion in the 1980s: Unknown little guy, whose father owns an Ace Muffler shop on First Street, fights powerful city hall efforts to wreck the business in a redevelopment scheme and wins.

Capitalizing on his newfound reputation as a defender of the common man, Pulido won a seat on the City Council in 1986. He teamed up with police and made his name synonymous with anti-crime efforts. In 1994, Pulido managed to garner support from poor residents, historical preservationists, homeowner associations and the chamber of commerce to become the city’s first Latino mayor.

Both major political parties like to push minority politicians to the forefront as badges of honor. But Pulido has never ascended. Some residents and political observers have labeled him a DINO (Democrat in name only). He may count former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Dianne Feinstein as friends, but he refused to endorse fellow Orange County Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996 because she challenged his longtime pal, Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan, at the time one of the lions of national right-wing politics.

Mark Petracca, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, sees Pulido as generally loyal to his party, but believes the mayor “also seems to be more pragmatic, sometimes even more opportunistic in ways which might veer from ideology.”

As lukewarm as he might seem about being a Democrat, he seems to thoroughly enjoy being mayor. He has served 14 years in that office and another eight as a city councilman. Your chances of spotting him comfortably hobnobbing with wealthy real-estate developers are excellent. Your chances of seeing him dining in a posh Newport Beach or Irvine restaurant are damn good. Your chances of witnessing him participate in a populist rally anywhere are slim to none.

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