Even in a town where every month some major or minor political figure is caught with a conflict or an unreported loan or a few unpaid bills or some back taxes, Tony Inocentes stands alone.
Since his election to the Otay Water District board eight years ago, Inocentes has been accused of kidnapping, spousal abuse, threats against fellow board members, violence, harassment, unpaid bills, loan fraud, bankruptcy fraud, perjury, delinquent taxes, mental instability, and lots of other not-so-good things.
Friends -- now former friends -- of Tony Inocentes still can't figure out how his once-promising career as a director of one of the largest -- and richest -- water districts in California went so wrong so quickly.
Many of them gathered at a May 1 meeting of the Otay Water District in Spring Valley to ask -- plead -- that the now-disgraced Inocentes resign.
"I regret to ask for the resignation of Mr. Inocentes," said Pedro Morena, a former supporter and one of 25 Otay Water ratepayers in attendance to urge Inocentes's resignation. "But for the good of the district, as well as the good of his family and himself, Mr. Inocentes must resign."
Morena was referring to a string of incidents involving Inocentes going back to his first election to the board eight years ago.
The bizarre episodes culminated on May 1, when a Superior Court judge granted a restraining order to all of Inocentes's fellow board members and the head of the Otay Water District, barring Inocentes from harassing or even talking to them or to district staff outside of board meetings.
In documents supporting the restraining order, Inocentes made "physical threats by bringing his adult son" to a March 15 meeting with him, said Bob Griego, general manager of the district. "His son's aggressive remarks left no doubt that I would be subject to physical violence at a later time."
Other board members reported receiving dozens of phone calls throughout last year and the first three months of this year, many with the sound of someone kissing -- the kiss of death, said San Diego police officer and gang expert Felix Aguirre. "This was a very serious and ominous threat."
According to court records, Inocentes threatened fellow board member Jaime Bonilla after an October 2001 meeting, accusing Bonilla of reporting Inocentes's alleged misconduct to state and federal authorities. "You ought to know what happens to snitches," Inocentes allegedly told Bonilla. "Snitches disappear. Don't be surprised if something happens to you. Don't be surprised."
Aguirre was alarmed by the threat. "The term 'snitch' is common in gang culture and would indicate a threat to Mr. Bonilla," said Aguirre. "In gang culture, this is probably the most dangerous term to utter to another."
Inocentes's son Tony Jr. is a known member of the Old Town National City gang, a well-established Mexican street gang with a history of violence, Aguirre said. "And Mr. Tony Inocentes Jr. has a tattoo on his chest that reads 'Old Town National City.' "
Bonilla's office had been vandalized and gang graffiti with the letters OTNC scrawled on the windows. Aguirre called the defacement "gang graffiti."
Bonilla told police he suspected Inocentes and his son were behind the criminal acts. "Inocentes has also bragged that his son is a bodyguard for the Arellano-Felix cartel and that his son can take care of business," Bonilla said in a Chula Vista police report of the incident.
Despite at least five depositions alleging threats and harassment, despite phone records that match dozens of calls from Inocentes's home to the phones of board members at the same time they were reporting obscene and threatening messages, Inocentes and his son deny they ever threatened or harassed anyone. The allegations, Inocentes said, were the work of his "political enemies."
But the claims of Inocentes and his son were not helped when, the night before the hearing to make the temporary restraining order permanent, Tony Jr. was arrested (with blood reportedly still dripping from his hands for what police first called a gang-related attempted murder in National City but now are calling an assault). Because the younger Inocentes was incarcerated in the downtown county jail, he was unable to show up for the hearing contesting the allegations that he had threatened violence against members of the Otay Water Board.
A Superior Court judge did grant the restraining order against the elder Inocentes. At another hearing two weeks later in the same court, with members of the National City police gang detail in the audience and prepared to testify, the younger Inocentes agreed to the three-year restraining order.
Before his son was arrested, Inocentes told the Chula Vista Star-News on April 15 that the charges against him were "an attempt to muddy me up before the [election] filing period. They want to make me look bad. There's a strong possibility if I don't run, my son will run. And this is their way of killing two birds with one stone."
His tone hardly changed even after his son was charged with the gang-related assault, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune on April 16 that his son was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that his arrest was "irrelevant" to their pending hearing on threats of violence against fellow board members.
This was not the younger Inocentes's first brush with the law. In November 2000, the 21-year-old Inocentes was a candidate for a seat on the Sweetwater Union High School District board when the San Diego Union Tribune reported he had just been released from the custody of the California Youth Authority less than a year before.
"Inocentes was committed to the CYA on weapon charges June 21, 1996, and discharged from parole this February 28," the Union-Tribune reported. "When asked about his reputed criminal history during an interview last month for a story on the board election, Inocentes would neither confirm nor deny that he had a CYA record. Inocentes was sentenced in 1996 under penal code sections dealing with possession of weapons at school and making threats. Contacted again yesterday, Inocentes said he took a small knife to school. He said he served 18 months in a CYA facility in Ventura."
Although juvenile records are sealed, Teresa Mata, the mother of Tony Jr.'s son, submitted a sworn statement in a paternity case where she filled in some of the details of Tony Jr.'s violent past:
In 1992, Tony Jr., after being expelled from Bonita Vista Junior High School, re-entered the campus and assaulted a student with an ice pick. He was incarcerated at Juvenile Hall in San Diego, then released to his father's custody.
In 1993, Tony Jr. assaulted a teacher with a chair at Summit School (a continuation school for children who have been expelled) and was incarcerated at Campo Youth Camp.
In July 1994, Tony Jr. was taken into custody by the Chula Vista Police Department for possession of a concealed firearm. He was returned to California Youth Authority and later transported to St. John's School for boys at Palm Springs for about six months.
In May 1996, Tony Jr. battered Teresa -- an attack he describes in a sworn declaration on file with the court as a "physical altercation." Tony Jr. said the fight occurred because he was "embarrassed and disappointed" by Teresa's arrest for shoplifting a $3 baby shirt. He was arrested and returned to the custody of CYA at Paso Robles for a period of 18 months and was released in November 1997.
On February 28, 1998, Tony Jr. again violated his probation by attacking his father and was returned to the CYA. He was released in April 1999 and began to stalk Teresa, "culminating when Respondent (Teresa) called the Sheriff's office in Lemon Grove after Petitioner (Tony Jr.) threatened to kill her and kidnap the child," court records show. She called the police to report that Tony Jr. had threatened to kill her and to kidnap their child. He evaded arrest from April 1999 until August 1999, when he was arrested and returned to CYA. He was released from custody on February 14, 2000.
The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. Court records also show that in April 1998, the elder Tony Inocentes was arrested for kidnapping and assault on his then-wife, Esther. In another restraining order, Esther says that she was "afraid for my life" after Tony Inocentes found her at Casa Salsa restaurant in National City and "unexpected, came from behind and dragged me physically and threw me into his car."
Inocentes "took me to the house and started to harass me, pushing me and grabbing me. He put bruises all over my hands and arms and cut my hand. He is mentally and physically unstable. He has stalked and abused me in the past."
Inocentes was released on $50,000 bail after Ian Gill, a contractor who does business with the district, including building their new headquarters, gave Inocentes $5000 to meet bail, public records show.
Later in 1998 he signed a statement that his declaration about his wife to the court was "all false."
The charges were dropped one month later, after Inocentes agreed to get counseling for his "mental state." And after he agreed to repay to his wife -- co-owner of his consulting business -- half of the money Inocentes received from Gill for his bail.
Inocentes had claimed that the bail money was actually part of a consulting agreement he had with the contractor and was not a payoff of any kind, he said, despite the claims of his political opponents to the contrary.
One of the names of the business and political consulting firm is K.A. Strategies, with the K.A. standing for Kick Ass. They claim to have run the successful opposition to the recent (unsuccessful) Chula Vista City Council campaign of Otay Water general manager Bob Griego.
In another curious incident, Inocentes once supported an "anonymous" newsletter during the November 2000 elections and reported board members who were involved in criminal acts, while painting himself as a ratepayers' hero. One headline in the newsletter claimed the water board was lending money to a landowner with illegal ties to a board member. Another headline claimed a board member received money for attending a meeting that he supposedly never attended. Both allegations were found to be untrue.
The newsletter was nominally edited by a man known to National City police as gang member Emmanuel Sotelo. In October 2001, Sotelo's editing career was cut short after he was shot dead by police after throwing away a gun and running during a police stop. Although National City police told reporters Sotelo was a member of the OTNC, after the shooting, Inocentes told reporters Sotelo was a "great kid" and asked his fellow boardmembers to observe a minute of silence in memory of the person who edited the paper that said it was published by "Old Time Neighborhood Communications."
At the May 1 meeting of the water board, gang expert Aguirre pointed out the initials: OTNC.
Inocentes even sued his own district for defamation in the year 2000, demanding $2 million in damages because fellow board members were speaking out publicly about his improprieties. The case was thrown out of court. Inocentes's lawyer is still seeking his legal fees of $80,000 and now has claims against Inocentes in bankruptcy court for $80,000 in legal bills.
Steve McCue, Inocentes's former attorney, filed claims in bankruptcy court last March, where he says that not only does Inocentes owe him legal fees, he says Inocentes is hiding substantial consulting income from the court.
Inocentes has "concealed, destroyed, mutilated, falsified, or failed to keep or preserve recorded information from which defendant's financial condition and business transactions might be ascertained," McCue told the court. "Inocentes purposely and intentionally receives consideration for his consulting services on a cash-only basis with the express intent to conceal and hide his consulting transactions and the income derived therefrom."
Inocentes's own e-mail to water district officials seems to back up his former lawyer's claims. While his bankruptcy filings and statements of economic interests list only his salary as a director and his reimbursable expenses as his only income -- which last year was $29,000 -- Inocentes, in a February 13 e-mail to Susan Cruz, an employee of the Otay Water District, asks that an appointment to discuss redistricting be set around his schedule because he has "a consulting contract with a City in L.A. I'm in the middle of for the next 90 days. Also, I am planning to go to Mexico City, Hawaii, and China on business soon."
If Inocentes did indeed receive income from these clients, this would cause additional problems because, by law, Inocentes is required to disclose his assets and income, as are all public officials in California.
Other creditors, including the state and federal government, have filed liens and obtained judgments against him. In November, the IRS filed a lien for $11,004 for back taxes. In December 2001, the State Franchise Tax Board also filed a lien to garnish Inocentes's wages for $27,570 in back taxes. On May 18, 2001, former board members Mark Watton and Susan Price also filed a wage garnishment to collect legal fees they had been awarded after Inocentes unsuccessfully sued them.
In 1997, Inocentes's wages were garnished to satisfy an $1127 small claims judgment. At least two separate court orders to pay back child support were also entered into public records in November 1999, though the documents do not reveal the amounts.
Meanwhile, public records show that in 2001, Inocentes collected more money from the water district in salary and expenses than all the other directors combined. His $29,369 in salary and expenses was 52 percent of the total money -- $56,471 -- that all the directors received last year.
Inocentes was also involved in the strange case of the National City councilman, Fred Soto, an attorney who resigned from the state bar in August 2000 after allegations of fraud and misuse of clients' funds.
Soto took $11,000 from National City bar owner Evelyn Jones to represent her in negotiations with the family of the bar's former owners. After the family members contacted Jones directly, asking for their money, Jones confronted Soto, asking why the family had not received the $11,000, said the San Diego Filipino newspaper Diario Veritas.
Soto did not return Jones's calls for weeks, saying he was in Europe, but upon his return, admitted he had not paid the money to where it was supposed to go.
Soto and Inocentes delivered a check for $5000 to Jones, promising to repay the rest later. When news of the alleged scam became public, Inocentes claimed his friend had not defrauded his client but instead had merely taken out a loan from her.
"Liar," said Jones of Inocentes.
In taking a page from his own play book, Inocentes then said the charges against Soto were politically motivated to stop Soto from running for another term. Like Inocentes, Soto even filed a defamation suit against his colleagues on the National City City Council. The suit was later dismissed.
As the allegations mount against Inocentes, his family, and his friends, so do the chances that Inocentes will never seek reelection to another term this November. In the meantime, Inocentes has missed the last three Otay Water Board meetings, perhaps meeting with his court-ordered anger counselor, suggested one wag at the last Otay Water Board meeting.
Years of allegations and charges against Inocentes have caused him to lose much of the institutional support he enjoyed as a member of the San Diego Hispanic community. The local papers that once loved to hear him rail against the racism that was keeping him -- and by extension other Hispanics -- down are now shunning his articles.
This is one of the reasons why three years ago, Inocentes suddenly discovered his long-lost Filipino roots, friends say. And since then, he has been publishing articles in the Filipino News, a San Diego publication. And he has taken a leadership position in the Filipino Chamber of Commerce on the board of directors.
He is their auditor.
When asked if she was familiar with Inocentes's long record of financial irregularities in business and politics, chamber president V.L. Vinson said she didn't care about that. "I'm a Christian and we do not believe in judging people."
Other members of the Filipino community are alarmed that this fox is guarding the henhouse. "It is truly a shame that Inocentes and his family have brought such disgrace to a position of such trust and honor," said Carol Santos outside a meeting of the Otay Water Board in May. "We Filipinos are especially hurt, because Inocentes used his Filipino heritage as part of his disgrace. If he has any honor left and any hope of saving his family, he will resign." Tony Inocentes says that will never happen.
(Inocentes was reached once but was unavailable for comment and did not return subsequent calls.)