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
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.
Indeed, when Pulido had the chance to stand up against Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s controversial Proposition 187, a thinly veiled 1994 election wedge issue that took punitive aim at the children of illegal immigrants by prohibiting them from education and emergency health care, he waffled. Just before that election, Pulido pretended to befriend both sides. He told Mexican-American activists that he shared their hostility to the measure. Then, this wily politician (who loves to play tennis and speak French) assured conservative businessmen that he only opposed the proposition because it wasn’t punitive enough.
As Pulido’s political base solidified and critics began calling him “mayor for life,” he developed a mantra: It’s “inverse discrimination” to ask him why he doesn’t share the concerns of immigrants or the poor. So, for example, he doesn’t want to field questions about why he’s been accused of working to block the improvement of low-income housing or ignoring Third-World-type, pothole-ridden streets in less-affluent neighborhoods. In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said that questions about his political loyalties “really get to me” because “I’m an American first.” Then he described himself as “very Mexican” and “very American.”
Whatever the label, Pulido’s discomfort with divisive social issues morphs into pleasure at the whiff of business opportunities. According to the mayor’s public-disclosure forms, he maintains an interest in the family’s old muffler shop, does consulting for RTP Controls in Georgia and Firm Green Inc., in Newport Beach. His Sol Distributing International has exported catalytic converters to Mexico. Because the state’s disclosure rules allow politicians to blur actual income, he could reap as little as $30,000 or as much as $300,000 per year from each of those sources. He receives $200 a month for the part-time mayor’s job.
But, as the Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano reported on our Navel Gazing blog last year, Pulido’s prized business is La Farga Group Inc. It’s a consulting business that lists him as “president.” There’s no known physical office. The address he uses belongs to his accountant—the same person who did the books for Abel Food. On public-disclosure forms, Pulido claims La Farga Group pays him an annual salary of between $10,000 and $100,000.
The mayor has faced questions about concealing improper dealings under these maddeningly vague disclosure rules. In 2003, he was found guilty of hiding money he’d taken from Kris Kakkar, a venture capitalist with numerous business interests at Orange County city halls. It was an innocent mistake, Pulido explained afterwards. He also promised to be more diligent about keeping the public informed.
Throughout this decade, however, Pulido’s bond with Newport Beach businessman Michael Harrah has worried even the mayor’s allies. If Gordon Gekko, ZZ Top and Milburn Drysdale could have produced an offspring, it would be the greedy, physical giant that is Harrah, who owns huge swaths of Santa Ana commercial and residential real estate, including the building that houses the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
“It’s an open secret that Miguel will give Harrah and a couple of other real-estate developers whatever they want,” one of the mayor’s longtime associates reluctantly confided on condition of anonymity. “Some people say that he’s a shameless political whore. Others might say he’s used these business connections to do great things for Santa Ana. I have feet in both camps.”
The city’s current biggest and most controversial development project, One Broadway Plaza—the proposed tallest building in the county at 37 stories—is Harrah’s brainchild. On this key issue, Pulido has worked feverishly behind the scenes lobbying on Harrah’s behalf but has abstained from voting on the issue. Generally, elected officials are banned from voting on matters tied directly to a company that has paid them money.
The FBI’s Santa Ana field office has made clear it will pounce if it catches a politician cheating. The agency’s 1998 sting operation captured two Santa Ana City Council members, including Ted Moreno. An undercover agent posed as a gas station owner wanting favorable city action and willing to pay $46,000 in cash bribes to make it happen. Moreno took the bait and was arrested, convicted and sentenced to four years in federal prison.
* * *
By early 2007, conditions at Abel Food prompted the mayor to act. The company was hemorrhaging money because of “unexpected costs,” even though Abel Salazar had convinced four of his relatives to invest $900,000 collectively one year earlier, according to court documents. Whatever differences Pulido and landlord George Gemayel had about the vending-truck operation, they both agreed on one point: It needed another huge cash infusion. Abel Food owed Gemayel 26 months of back rent.