American Times Los Angeles: Confession fever spreads to the West

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WHEN IT comes to fending off scandal, Los Angeles city councilman Richard Alatorre knows a thing of two - and we're not just talking about lies about sex.

Here is a man who, according to his accusers, has regularly been spotted with a crust of white powder under his nostrils, who has emerged from meetings with political allies and business associates with wads of $100 bills in his hands, and who has an uncanny knack for extracting financial gain from ruinously expensive public business schemes - whether it is a loan on a new house or funds to launch charities run by his latest wife.

His life is being pored over by federal prosecutors, and embarrassing confessions have been extracted under oath. There is even another woman in his life - in his case a former secretary who is taking revenge for being jilted by pouring her heart out to federal investigators.

Mr Alatorre has been called many things, few of them complimentary, and conversation among both supporters and vitriolic critics is rarely temperate. Jackal, vampire, snake - Mr Alatorre has been compared to the whole menagerie. It is a wonder, in fact, that he has survived a full 13 years as the city representative for East Los Angeles, and a long stint before that in the California state legislature.

Long considered unassailable as head of the city budget and finance committee, he is suddenly under attack on several fronts at once. First came the leaked revelation that a company run by political supporters of Mr Alatorre's had won a $65m (pounds 40m) contract for a proposed East LA underground rail line, even though two other companies had performed better in a technical survey. In the ensuing furore the scheme collapsed, the head of LA's Mass Transit Authority resigned and Mr Alatorre's colleague, Gloria Molina, described him as "a very corrupt politician who has his bloody fingerprints all over this thing".

Next came Mr Alatorre's former secretary and lover, Linda Ward, who claimed not only that she saw her boss come out of meetings bulging with cash but that he would ask her to deposit the money at the bank for him. Mr Alatorre has since claimed that the cash was the residue of per diem payments he received when he was at the state legislature - even though he left Sacramento in 1985.

Federal investigations and subpoenas have been hurtling in Mr Alatorre's direction at great speed ever since. There is the case of the businessmen who say they have helped Mr Alatorre falsify a claim for a home loan in exchange for a public building contract. Or the collapse of a scheme to renovate a hotel in which the city invested more than $10m - a scheme that also provided a $100,000 donation to a youth charity in which Mr Alatorre's wife Angie played a leading role.

Most humiliating for Mr Alatorre, though, has been an acrimonious civil case which he and his wife are fighting for the custody of a niece currently living with them. To fend off counter-claims by the girl's father, they have been put in the embarrassing situation of trying to prove in court they have the character necessary to raise a child.

So far, it has been a fiasco. Not only have all the financial scandals come outagain, but Mr Alatorre has been forced to admit under oath that he has a past as both an alcoholic and a cocaine addict. (Mr Alatorre previously explained away the white residue about his nostrils as either "dandruff, denture powder or Doritos".)

When it comes to defending himself, Mr Alatorre has preferred to leave the talking to his lawyers. His friends have done more running for him, but even they have reasoned in less than moralistic terms. "Richard's not a stupid guy, and taking cash is stupid, stupid, stupid. And depositing that cash in a bank is nothing short of moronic. It's extremely hard to believe," one anonymous supporter argued to a magazine columnist recently.