Candidate made call in fraud probe of kin

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Bustamante’s aunt was imprisoned in meals-program fraud case.

Orange County Register (California)

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante called the state Department of Education on behalf of relatives when he was a member of the Assembly to ask about a fraud investigation that ultimately landed his aunt in prison for pocketing federal money earmarked for poor children’s meals.

Bustamante’s political strategist, Richie Ross, defended the phone call, saying Friday that the gubernatorial candidate did nothing wrong when he contacted investigators in 1996.

”He called to see what they were accused of,” Ross said. ”At that time, his response was, ‘I love them. I stand by them. If they did anything wrong, they have to face the consequences.’ ”

Ross said Bustamante identified himself to the Department of Education officials, who administered a federally funded meal program for child-care centers, and made it clear that he was not trying to influence the investigation. Ross said it was a single call and that Bustamante made sure he did it in the presence of a witness.

Ross declined to identify or provide access to the witness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan iel Linhardt, who prosecuted the case against Bustamante’s aunt and uncle, said he knew about the call, but it never was part of his investigation.

”We never found that Cruz in any way attempted to shut down the investigation,” Linhardt said. ”There was no evidence that warranted us going to take a look at it. He never contacted me or anyone on my investigative team to find out what was going on.”

Capitol watchdogs said making such a call is still unwise.

”He’s not calling up State Farm, he is calling a state government agency over which he has some influence,” said Doug Heller, with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. ”The danger is the recipient of the call might interpret that they are trying to exert influence, even if that isn’t what they intended.”

Avel and Edna Bustamante pleaded guilty to fraud charges three years ago. Edna Bustamante served some prison time, and each was given three years’ probation, Linhardt said. The couple falsely billed the state and federal program that provides meals for children from poor families.
Contact the author: (916) 449-6685 or [email protected]

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