By Jim Tortolano
Investigations into allegations by Councilmember Kimberly Ho about the hiring of a former city council member as a consultant and the 2016 sale of a portion of a city park were approved Wednesday night by a bitterly divided Westminster City Council.
The meeting was punctuated by angry cross-talk and raised voices, with some members calling other members “liars.”
During an interview on Saigon Entertainment Television, Ho made comments about Mayor Tri Ta and his alleged influence in the city’s action to retain Tyler Diep to seek federal and state grant money for Westminster.
The interview was conducted in Vietnamese and a translated transcript was presented to the council.
“Everything said by Councilmember Ho is a big lie,” said Ta. “She is a big liar. I reject everything Councilmember Ho said.”
Ho replied that the transcript stated that the allegations claim “Mayor Tri Ta was personally involved in negotiating the salary for Diep, pressuring [then-City Manager] Marwan Youssef to hire Tyler Diep.”
Diep’s contract was terminated in the uproar that followed.
“I insist on an investigation,” she added. “I don’t want to use the word ‘corruption.’ Let’s say wrongdoing.”
Much argument, some of it loud, followed, and a motion to ask the city attorney to hire an independent investigator was approved on 3-2 vote, with Ta and Vice Mayor Chi Charlie Nguyen voting no.
Also controversial was the sale of about 10,000 square feet of Liberty Park (located on Monroe Street, north of Westminster Boulevard) to a private party five years ago.
“I’m appalled by it,” said Ho, who was not on the city council at the time. “I am shocked. Who is watching out for our city?” The only member of the current council who was in office at that time was Ta, whom she referred to sarcastically as “our beloved mayor.” She argued that the land was sold illegally and said, “I demand that the city attorney get that piece of property back.”
Ta wanted to have the city clerk read a letter from the city attorney about the topic, but the discussion descended into angry cries of “Who do you work for?” and “How dare you!” City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen tried repeatedly to get the council to take the matter into closed session because of “potential litigation” but was ignored.
When tempers finally cooled, Bettenhausen – who was not the city attorney at the time – said, “This is the first time I’m aware of this. I don’t recall this. It’s highly irregular and I think we should look into it.” He said that the listing the sale of part of the park on the consent calendar under as a “routine matter” was “highly problematic. We don’t ever sell property in consent. It’s also sold by quit-claim, which is not normal.”
Ho said, “Somebody tried really hard to hide this,” noting that the land was sold for $100,000, a sum she felt was too low by at least $300,000. “I’m so shocked at the level of fraud.”
Ta responded, “I don’t disagree that we need an investigation,” but “at the tine I assumed that everything needed to be, was vetted by the city manager,” who was Eddie Manfro.
Councilmember Tai Do suggested that the city employ an outside investigator as well as submit the matter to other law enforcement bodies such as the district attorney or Department of Justice.
That was approved on a 4-0 vote with Vice Mayor Chi Charlie Nguyen abstaining, saying he didn’t want to bring up actions that were made “years ago.”