Records reveal El Monte paying City Attorney 2.29 million in 2021
Political Life has been covering developments in El Monte, California for well over a year. Notably, we interviewed the former City Clerk regarding the felony drunk driving by the City Treasurer and the cover-up by Police Captain Ben Lowry, who is slated to be promoted to Acting Chief.
More recently, we have covered City Attorney Rick Olivarez’ numerous attempts to silence the public. We also learned from El Monte residents that his OMLO Law firm has been receiving more than $200,000 a month, for several months, from El Monte City Council.
We have investigated further and found that City payouts have been steadily climbing for several years, culminating in a $360,371 for one month of work at today’s 12/14/21 meeting. In total, we estimate that based on the public record alone, Olivarez’ OMLO has received an average of 1.5 million per year for the last seven years. We demonstrate that this number falls well outside of local industry standards.
In a working-class City, OMLO has a rising paycheck
By every measure, El Monte is a city of working-class families. Census figures show the median household income is $49,003, and 50.6% of the population is foreign-born. Only 12.2% have had the opportunity to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
In this context, our reporters examined every Meeting Agenda of the El Monte City Council for 2015-2021—the years that are readily available on the City’s website. We found that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, payments to OMLO were over a million, but less than $1,200,000.
By 2018, OMLO payouts went to $1,583,492 and the 2019 payouts held closely at $1,535,019. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, OMLO’s payout climbed to $1,773,031, and by the current year of 2021, the payout has climbed higher to $2,289,678.
Compensation falls outside local industry norms
City Attorneys often earn some of the highest salaries in society—but high does not mean exorbitant. For example, in nearby Pasadena the City Attorney received $310,117 in total pay for 2020. Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles paid City Attorney Michael Feuer $253,517.
How could Olivarez’ OMLO earn $360,000 in a single month, as at the December 14th, 2021, meeting? Unlike Pasadena and Los Angeles, El Monte does not have Olivarez as an employee. Rather, OMLO is a contractor and seems to raise his legal fees in concert with the City Manager: The two are known to direct the agenda outside of the purview of the Mayor and the City Council.
Perhaps the most immediately concerning aspect of Olivarez’ compensation in El Monte is a monthly retainer of around $60,000 (the exact figure fluctuates). Such a retainer is included in the “Vendor Totals” of the printout, suggesting that it is not returned by OMLO.
Sometimes the retainer takes up the great majority of Olivarez' compensation. For example, on 6/23/15, Olivarez charged a $65,000 retainer, and only $15,452 in legal fees, for a total of $80,452. That is, the retainer made up 80% of the compensation for the month.
Political Life could not readily identify such an exorbitant retainer in surrounding Cities, although such retainers do exist. For example, Pico Rivera is paying $8,900 a month to law firm Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin—more than $50,000 less than El Monte pays to OMLO each month. Not all local cities have such retainers: the City of Paramount does not specifically list a retainer for The Cavanaugh Law Group.
No matter how the numbers are sliced, or which numbers are examined, Olivarez’ OMLO payouts from the City of El Monte far exceeds industry standards, both when compared to City Attorneys who are employees and to City Attorneys who are contractors.
Olivarez’ donations to El Monte Council Members
Beyond the payouts from the City, records from the FPPC show that Olivarez’ OMLO has a PAC, “Blue Sky”, and the PAC made 2020 donations to El Monte Mayor Pro Tem Alma Puente, who was a candidate at the time. Our reporters witnessed Puente and Olivarez walking out of City Hall after they held an illegal meeting with Council Members Martin Herrera and Maria Morales (who also received BlueSky money).
While the donations are relatively small (often under $3,000), El Monte resident Irma Zamorano said “He gives them a few thousand for their campaigns, but how much are they being given under the table to keep him in power? What kind of dirt does he have on them?”
Community outrage grows: “Theft in broad daylight”
The $360,371 that OMLO is receiving at the 12/16/21 meeting is the most in the entire period we examined. A resident who chose to remain anonymous said “He’s not making off like a thief in the night. He’s doing this right out in the open. We cannot let this continue. From Olivarez to the City Manager to the Council and the Acting Chief, we are going to hold them all accountable.”
For members of the public who are interested in examining the documents we have reported in this article, we have made our database of El Monte's payments to OMLO available for download.
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