By Amanda Baumfeld, Staff Writer | San Gabriel Valley Tribune
03/28/2009 07:05:25 AM PDT -- MONTEBELLO - A lawsuit filed against Burnside & Associates accuses Councilman Robert Urteaga of fraud and breach of contract for his work on a political campaign, officials said.
Benjamin Austin claims the political consulting firm misrepresented him in his race for Los Angeles Unified School Board by failing to qualify him for the March 2009 ballot, according to a complaint filed March 3 with Los Angeles County Superior Court.
"At the end of the day, what happened was they told me they collected 500 signatures and validated them," Austin said. "They managed to collect them in the wrong district; they managed to use the wrong computer program to validate them."
Urteaga does occasional contract work for Burnside & Associates and was assigned to work on Austin's signature gathering, according to court documents. Urteaga did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
◄Montebello city councilman Robert Urteaga. (SGVN/Staff photo by Leo Jarzomb)
Sue Burnside, president of Burnside & Associates, said Austin's allegations are totally untrue.
"We can't comment because it is a current lawsuit," Burnside said Friday. "This is a bleeder suit. Austin cannot take responsibility for his campaign so he is suing everyone else around him."
Burnside & Associates are political consultants who have worked on campaigns such as Sen. John Kerry, Congresswoman Jane Harman and Congresswoman Diane Watson, according to its Web site. They are currently working on Gil Cedillo's race for the 32nd Congressional District seat.
According to the lawsuit filed March 3, Austin was the front runner for the LAUSD school board election with heavy endorsements from Los Angeles politicians including Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa.
In November, Austin hired Burnside & Associates to collect enough signatures to qualify for the school board ballot.
In order to qualify for the Los Angeles School Board ballot a candidate is required to collect 500 signatures of registered voters
◄Copy of Urteaga Complaint from the candidate's district.
A Nov. 26 e-mail sent to Austin from Urteaga said that 823 signatures had been collected and 508 of those were validated as being registered voters in the Fourth District - which is Austin's district, according to the complaint.
On Dec. 8 the L.A. County Registrar's office informed Austin he failed to qualify for the March ballot.
"It was jarring and sad," Austin said. "It was almost inexplicable."
Austin later found out that Urteaga farmed out the signature-gathering process to someone else, according to documents.
Several of the signatures were collected in a bordering district, which Austin believes increased the likelihood that he would not qualify for the ballot, according to the complaint.
The complaint also accuses Urteaga of collecting signatures for a competing candidate simultaneously while working on Austin's campaign.
The complaint goes on to say that Burnside & Associates should have disclosed Urteaga's felonious past to Austin.
In 1998, Urteaga pleaded no contest to grand theft of personal property totaling $30,000, according to court documents. He originally was accused of five counts of check forgery and one count of grand theft, but the District Attorney dropped the forgery counts in a July 1999 plea agreement.
This is not the first time Burnside & Associates has been accused of fraud. In October 2008, Joon Il Kim, 30, was sentenced 90 days in jail for filing a false affidavit while working on behalf of Burnside & Associates.
Meanwhile, Austin tried contacting Burnside immediately after hearing he did not qualify. Burnside refused to take his calls and the two have still not spoken, according to the complaint.
Austin is suing to cover legal and campaign expenses and for the damage it has done to his reputation, he said.
"I am not a litigious guy, never sued anyone before ...," Austin said. "They (Burnside & Associates) handled it in a pretty strange way. We reached out to them, the day it all happened and she (Burnside) wouldn't take my call."