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Councilman’s Felony Past Stokes Trash Debate

Posted By admin On October 23, 2008 @ 10:35 pm In General News, Montebello | No Comments

A Montebello councilman’s nearly decade old felony conviction was recently made public by
proponents of a referendum aiming to repeal a trash hauling agreement.


Councilman Robert

Representatives from the Montebello Residents for Honest Government, which launched the
referendum effort, alerted the public through an Internet blog post and conversations with reporters
that Montebello’s youngest-ever elected councilman, Robert Urteaga, was convicted in 1999, at the
age of 24, of committing grand theft. Court documents indicate Urteaga pleaded no contest to grand
theft of property totaling $30,000.

Urteaga is one of three council members being criticized for voting to approve the 15-year exclusive
contract giving waste hauling company Athens Services the rights to all commercial business in

The company has had exclusive rights over residential business in the city since the 1940s.

Mayor Bill Molinari, who endorsed Urteaga when he ran in 2007, said he felt betrayed. “It certainly is
a disappointing development. This young man obviously has a great deal of potential and ability. This
poses a serious question — it’s more about character than anything else. Those of us who supported
him were not aware of this circumstance,” he says.

But Urteaga says the conviction reflects a mistake he made in his youth, and not who he is today. He
was 21 years old when he took money from an employer to pay off his debts. He had fallen in with
the wrong crowd and got into debt through sports gambling, he told EGP.

“I was young and impressionable. I wanted to go in with a lot of money – it was money that didn’t
belong to me – I didn’t want to be in opposition with the wrong people,” he says. “I really felt my life
was in danger.”
Gambling seemed like an easy way to make money to support himself through school, he said. It
worked for a while, he said, but eventually his luck turned. “I lost money and I lost more money, and
it started a downward spiral. And my mistake was I didn’t ask for help,” he says.

He said that facing the consequences set him straight. “It has shaped me into the individual that I am
today. I’m not the same person. I was 21 years old at the time. Who in their life hasn’t made a
mistake? I don’t think there’s a single person,” he says.

“When I ran for city council, people were getting to know the real me… ten years is a long time ago.
I’ve moved on from the pain I’ve caused my family, myself, and my friends. I told myself I would
never ever get

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caught up in anything that was remotely illegal or remotely unethical,” he says.

Urteaga served no jail time. Instead he reported to a probation officer for three years and completed
60 days of community service with Caltrans.

Court documents show the DA originally charged him with six counts. He was convicted on the first
count of grand theft. The remaining five counts charging him with forging checks were dismissed after
plea negotiations.

Prior to running for the council, Urteaga had worked in the Los Angeles city council office of former
Councilman Nick Pacheco. The former employer says he only recently learned of Urteaga’s felony

“When we hired Robert, I hired him out of the mayor’s office at the time. I probably wouldn’t have
looked into his background. He came so highly recommended based on his work,” he said.

Pacheco doesn’t think the felony reflects who his former employee is today. “It’s definitely something
that people are going to look at and they are going to decide if this is going to matter to them. When
was this, eleven years ago? To a young person eleven years is a world of difference… I’m sure the
current Robert would not be happy with the young Robert,” he said.

The felony does not restrict Urteaga from serving on the city council. He checked with the city
attorney about whether his felony would restrict him from running for office.

“There’s nothing, either in state law or local law that prohibits Councilmember Urteaga from running,
from serving, from continuing with his duties as councilmember,” says City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-

The head of the DA’s Public Integrity Division David Dermejian confirms that the conviction has no
bearing on Urteaga’s ability to serve. Only some felonies would restrict a person from running for
office, and Urteaga was not convicted of any of them. California state law only restricts felons who
have been convicted of bribery, forgery, and misuse of public funds from running for public office.

“If you’re a thief who steals public funds, that puts you into a different category than just an
everyday run-of-the mill thief,” says David Dermejian. Also, Urteaga was not in public office when he
committed grand theft, he said.

“It’s of no consequence whatsoever. It’s up to the voters,” he says.

Urteaga says news of the felony conviction surfaced because referendum proponents wanted to sway
him politically. “I did get a felony on my record, I paid restitution and I moved on with the rest of my
life. There’s no one to blame for the issue but me. But it’s so far removed from the individual I am
today,” he said. “The real reason why this is coming up — it all has to do with them trying to
intimidate me into changing my vote,” he said.

Chris Robles, spokesperson for the referendum effort and the Montebello Residents for Honest
Government PAC, says he isn’t convinced that Urteaga has learned the lessons from his felony
conviction. He says Urteaga’s decision to support the Athens Services trash-hauling contract has
angered the community and revelations about his conviction may become grounds for a recall.

“I can’t find any sympathy for him. It would be different if he was doing a good job, and nothing less
than his resignation would be satisfactory to the community at this point,” Robles says.

Molinari opposes the Athens Services contract, but says news about Urteaga’s felony conviction is not
related to that issue. Instead, he is disappointed that the felony conviction never came up when he
interviewed Urteaga for his endorsement. “I asked him if there was anything I should know about.
He indicated there was nothing of that type. When this information came to light it certainly
contradicts that. It puts myself and others in an embarrassing position.”

Molinari added that the city passed a resolution that requires a background check of all
commissioners. He would support one to be extended to city council members, he says.

Councilwoman Kathy Salazar, who runs MELA, a counseling service, says she works with many
people who need second chances. She also supports the Athens Services contract, and says she
respects Urteaga’s contributions on the council.

“Whatever he did, he paid for, that was 9 years ago when he was very young. You don’t hold onto
somebody’s past when they’re trying so hard to be a very productive citizen to the community… He’s

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paid the price for that situation, and now to me, we just need to move forward,” she says.

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