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July 30th, 2009 by Temple City Tribune
Last Tuesday, the Temple City Council voted 4-0 to strip Judy Wong of her mayorship. Wong, who will continue to serve as a general councilmember until her term expires in 2011, abstained from the vote regarding her future as mayor. Councilman Fernando Vizcarra was chosen to succeed Wong as mayor, while Councilman Vincent Yu became mayor pro tem.
Additionally, Scott Carwile pleaded guilty on Thursday as part of a bargain agreement in which he will not serve jail time for his role in the bribery scandal that has plagued the city and garnered widespread media attention.
Wong was appointed mayor in 2007 after her predecessor Cathé Wilson failed to retain her seat in the March election. Wong, who was indicted in June for allegedly demanding and receiving bribes from developer Randy Wang, faced increasing pressure from certain outspoken citizens to step down, pressure which ultimately culminated with Councilman Tom Chavez’s suggestion that Temple City should consider a change of leadership.
“After much deliberation and soul-searching—I think in response to recent events and hearing from many of the citizens of Temple City—I would like to have the issue of reorganization of the City Council added to our next agenda,” Chavez explained during a council meeting on July 7.
The council agreed to discuss the matter at the following meeting on the 21st.
Newly appointed Mayor Fernando Vizcarra won his seat on the council in a 2007 coin toss after he and rival Dan Arrighi received an equal number of votes. A provision in the state elections code permits ties to be determined by chance.
Since his appointment, Vizcarra, a recently retired hospital administrator, has promised to restrict unnecessary community projects, most notably the controversial Piazza at Temple City (a mixed-use 124,000 square foot establishment comprised of retail space, real estate, restaurants, and banquet facilities at the corner of Las Tunas Drive and Rosemead Boulevard), which he has said he views as damaging to the city’s character.
Yu, who successfully campaigned for a council position earlier this year, has pledged to draw upon his experience as a planning commissioner and architect to manage city growth, further city development, and encourage residents to take an interest in the city’s welfare.
In Temple City, the title of mayor is mostly ceremonial; aside from such privileges as presiding over council meetings and representing the city at civic functions, the mayor wields no more power than the rest of the council.
The five members of the Temple City Council, who are independently elected by city voters, each serve a term of four years and annually select one member to serve as mayor. The mayor pro tem is similarly selected to represent the city in the mayor’s absence.
Despite her indictment, Wong asserts that she is innocent and decries any allegations as “false charges which will be proven wrong.”
Prior to the vote that stripped her of her mayorship, Wong gave a final defense from the council dais, insisting to those present that she would eventually be exonerated of all the charges against her.
Wong, former Mayor Cathé Wilson, recently resigned Councilman Dave Capra and former Council Candidate Scott Carwile, have all been engaged in a heated and costly legal battle since January, when developer Randy Wang accused the three council members of illegally soliciting bribes in exchange for their support of his proposed project. Wang, whose company is responsible for the
development of the Piazza, claimed that Wilson demanded a bribe of either a Piazza one-bedroom condominium or $48,000 for her assistance, while Wong and Capra allegedly requested $5,000 apiece for their respective campaigns. Wang’s lawsuit came after and in response to a lawsuit filed by the City of Temple City, alleging that Wang’s company had failed to meet the requirements of the development contract, which called for completion of the project by no later than August of this year.
The previous city council unanimously approved the Piazza’s construction in May 2006, but development was delayed for several years due to several changes in project managers and, according to the developers, the financing trouble brought on by the global economic downturn.
Additionally, council members were hesitant to approve some of Wang’s proposed alterations to the original Piazza template, which included restrictions on building elevations and architectural restructuring.
In the initial agreement drawn up between Wang and former City Manager/Attorney Charlie Martin, Wang was given until August 23 of this year to complete the project’s construction, with the understanding that if he failed to meet the deadline, the City would have the option of purchasing the 3.7-acre lot for $5 million – an amount just half of what Wang reportedly paid for the property.
As the years passed, the city grew increasingly dissatisfied with the slow pace of the project, and anticipating breach of contract, decided to pursue litigation against Wang and his company.
In April 2008, Temple City sued Wang’s company, TDC Enterprise, claiming that the corporation had failed to meet construction deadlines. The suit demanded that the property be turned over to the city for the agreed-upon $5 million.
In response, Wang countersued. Wang alleged that the city and the Temple City Redevelopment Agency had been attempting to hinder the project’s progress for years by forcing TCD Enterprise to hire specific project managers, attorneys, and other important employees. He argued that the city intended to unfairly seize the Piazza development site through eminent domain.
Furthermore, Wang claimed that city officials had taken advantage of his poor English by coercing him into signing agreements without the presence of an attorney or a full understanding of the terms of the contracts. His lawsuit included allegations that certain council members had pressured him into distributing bribes.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office-Public Integrity Division has been investigating the case since 2008, when Wang turned over tapes of secretly recorded phone calls with council members. While California typically requires both parties’ knowledge and consent of the recordings for such tapes to count as legal evidence in court, an exception is made for cases involving exoneration.
Authorities were given search warrants allowing investigation of the council members’ homes as well as City Hall, where numerous documents were seized. In addition, the warrants also gave law enforcement officers permission to search the homes of former city council candidate Scott Carwile and former Piazza developing manager Jay Liyanage.
The investigation following those searches concluded that the 2007 Temple City campaign finance reports contained no record of donations from Wang or Liyanage. David Capra later pled guilty to a campaign reporting violation and resigned shortly thereafter, though he cited health problems as his reason for leaving the council.
On June 10, Judge Patricia Schnegg unsealed a 21-count indictment against Wong, Wilson, and Carwile at a Los Angeles courthouse. Wong received the greatest number of charges: six counts of bribery, three counts of perjury, and one count of solicitation of bribery.
Wilson was charged with three counts of bribery and three counts of perjury, while Carwile was charged with four counts of perjury and a misdemeanor count of neglecting to report a significant campaign contribution. All three adamantly denied the charges at the time, though now only Wilson and Wong maintain their innocence.
Following his guilty plea entered Thursday at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles, Carwile is scheduled to be sentenced on October 22nd. Assuming he testifies truthfully against the two remaining defendants, Carwile has been promised his sentence will be in the area of two years probation, a far cry from the up to 7 years in prison Carwile could have faced if he had been convicted of the initial charges of perjury and bribery.
If convicted, Wong could face up to ten years and four months in prison. Wilson faces a maximum sentence of nine years. At the initial arraignment last month, bail was set for Wong, Wilson, and Carwile at $250,000, $150,000, and $100,000, respectively.
Wong and Wilson will return to court on August 26 for a follow-up hearing.
By Nuria Mathog
– John Stephens and Terry Miller contributed to this report. Photographs by Terry Miller