‘!’&,'”,k 0 a. 0 0 .` By Guillermo Garcia Laredo “This is the first free election this town has had in modern times. It may turn out a little weird…” So mused a veteran observer of Laredo’s boss-ruled political scene on the eve of the city’s first genuinely contested mayoral election in over 25 years, and the April 1 balloting that put a Rhode Island Italian with no prior governmental experience in the mayor’s office made the fellow look pretty good as a political prognosticator. Actually, the campaign that ended with businessman Aldo Tatangelo’s victory over local lawyer Oscar Laurel \(61 clusively: backers of both candidates proved that Laredoans can sling mud in a city election as sure-handedly as do more practiced partisans in other Texas municipalities. But little else can be stated with certainty about the outcome of the contest, which was supposed to set Laredo’s scandal-ridden city administration on the straight and narrow path toward good government. Whether or not that happened depends on which side is doing the explaining. 8 MAY 26, 1978 ment for conspiracy to use city street supplies on his private ranch established a compelling personal reason for Martin’s retirement, and on May 22, Martin pleaded guilty to a charge of mail fraud. Named as Martin’s co-conspirator was Laredo street commissioner Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez, who may have set a record for most indictments garnered by a city official while still in office. The state grand jury accused him of commit ting 21 distinct offenses entirely apart from the one federal count. One charge was that Rodriguez diverted federal funds earmarked for street department projects to pay salaries to players on his semi-pro baseball team. Less inventive was his alleged use of city workers to fix up the homes of Laredo officials, including his own and Mayor Martin’s. The state indictments also claimed the street commissioner engaged in organized criminal activity, tampered with government records, operated a pervasive kickback scheme, and bribed people. Laredo residents may have been surprised prised by the number and breadth of the charges, but the grounds for them have been topics of local political gossip for years. Some locals say the federal and state investigators still have plenty of work to do if they expect their indictment lists to reflect the full extent of Laredo corruption. Their favorite example of a transaction for which no one has yet been prosecuted involves the city treet department’s illicit variant of the Good Neighbor policy. Evidently, a city road-grader was hauled across the international national bridge to meet the urgent needs of certain ranchers south of the border. It didn’t reappear on the streets of Laredo for six months. In spite of such oversights, the investi gations last fall were thorough enough to make continued public service a deidedly unpleasant prospect for a umber of elected officials besides Mayor Martin. Within days of his resigation announcement, six out of eight government campaign posed the real challenge to the status quo, and they mutter darkly about “East Coast” Mafia money finding its way into Tatangelo’s coffers. What made all this nastiness possible was the abrupt exit from city hall of t long-time mayor and Webb County boss c J. Claude Martin Jr. “Pepe” Martin cited I personal reasons last November when he p announced that he would call it quits f after 24 years in the mayor’s job. Thereafter he made himself scarce, and s some Laredoans noted a singular coinci dence between his hasty leave-taking 1 and the return of 40 indictments by a d local grand jury late last year against 24 alleged participants in what came to be li known as “the Laredo street department scandal.” Chalk one up for the cynics: on May 8 of this year, a federal indict h From the new mayor’s side of the political fence, it looks as though the poor folk seized the unaccustomed electoral opportunity to wrest control of their community from the grasp of corrupt, patron-style politicos. From Laurel’s side, Tatangelo appears to be less a populist champion than a front man for c the powerful clans that have lorded it n over Laredo for generations. Laurel supporters say their candidate’s clean n city council members, the city tax assessor, tax collector, treasurer, and city attorney all followed his lead and let it be known that they would not seek reelection. The mass flight left city business unatended for months, and more than one ouncil meeting had to be postponed for ack of a quorum. Amid rumors of imending prosecutions the establishment orces Martin had led were in disarray. Into the unprecedented power vacuum tepped Aldo Tatangelo, who decided to apply his entrepreneurial skills in public ife after piling up a small fortune in borer business ventures. Derided as a funny-talking” Yankee by the estabshment in spite of his twelve-year resdence on the border, the Rhode Island ative endeared himself to the neglected ave-nots of Laredo by daring to
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