By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES—A former construction official with the Los Angeles housing authority was apprehended in Guatemala last week and brought back to the United States to face federal corruption charges, officials said.
Victor Taracena, who worked at the authority from 2003 to 2007, pleaded not guilty Friday to bribery and conspiracy in a case in which he is accused of steering nearly $527,000 in contracts to dummy companies created by his brothers, Diego and Bennett Taracena. Those companies never performed the work for which they were paid, according to prosecutors.
Taracena was already a fugitive in January when a federal grand jury indictment against him was unsealed. In the indictment, federal investigators said the three brothers had participated in an elaborate scheme to defraud the housing authority of money that was supposed to go toward the installation of ramps and railings for low-income wheelchair users.
Under the alleged scheme, companies created by Diego and Bennett Taracena received checks from the authority, then kicked back roughly $100,000 to their older brother. Victor Taracena wired at least $41,000 of that to a bank account in Guatemala, with at least $8,000 earmarked for the purchase of property there, according to the indictment.
Diego and Bennett Taracena have pleaded guilty in the case. They were sentenced two weeks ago to one year and nine months in prison.
Victor Taracena was arrested in Guatemala on Tuesday and expelled for being in that country illegally, according to an FBI spokeswoman. He appeared in court Friday and was ordered held without bail, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
The housing authority sued the three brothers and received a $605,000 civil judgment in 2010. So far, none of that money has been paid.