Supporters drop L.A. city candidate after wage theft report

Three factions and a longtime labor rights expert in LA have withdrawn their support of city council candidate Danielle Sandoval after the Times published reports of outstanding wage theft claims against her restaurant.

Over the past three days, the California Women’s List, political action committee Fund Her and the Californians for Human Immigrant Rights Leadership Action Fund have withdrawn their support for Sandoval, who is running to replace Councilman Joe Buscaino in the Nov. 8 election.

Victor Narro, who teaches human engineering at UCLA, was the first to draw his approvaland said he advised the candidate almost two months ago to settle outstanding wage theft claims against Caliente Cantina, a restaurant Sandoval opened in 2014 and later closed.

Narro said he urged Sandoval to contact the Wage Justice Center, which was trying to collect money owed to the restaurant’s former employees. The UCLA instructor withdrew his confirmation last week, shortly after The Times reported that four of the restaurant’s wage-theft cases are still open — seven years after the state Labor Commissioner ruled in favor of the workers.

Narro called the Times’ coverage “the turning point.”

“I cannot support a candidate who is stealing wages and does nothing about it,” he said in an interview. “She didn’t stand up to take responsibility.”

A man speaks to a group of people

Labor rights attorney Victor Narro, pictured in 2017, withdrew his endorsement of Los Angeles City Council candidate Danielle Sandoval over her handling of wage theft claims.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Angelica Salas, president of the CHIRLA Action Fund, said Thursday that her board unanimously withdrew its approval after reviewing the filings in the Caliente Cantina cases. Wage theft, she said, is “one of the greatest injustices and abuses” faced by immigrants.

“Given the reports and the evidence presented and upholding our mission and core values, the CHIRLA Action Fund cannot continue to endorse and support candidate Danielle Sandoval,” Salas said in a statement.

The Heart of LA Democratic Club, another of Sandoval’s supporters, said in a statement that the group is “reviewing these allegations and will decide how to proceed.”

Sandoval, who is running to represent a district stretching north from San Pedro to Watts, has responded to the controversy by saying employee pay at her restaurant was managed by a payroll firm and shift supervisors. “With any business, operations could always become smoother, more precise and more organized,” she said in a statement this week.

Sandoval spokesman Rick Thomas also dismissed Narro’s description of events, saying a Sandoval attorney “acted immediately” — learning of the workers’ demands in late July and contacting the Wage Justice Center by early August .

Sandoval’s attorney is working on a “quick fix,” Thomas said.

“Victor Narro is incorrect in his assumption that Sandoval took no action or took any responsibility,” he said, “and it is irresponsible on his part to make such a statement.”

The Labor Commissioner concluded in 2015 that Cantina Investments, while operating as Caliente Cantina, failed to pay four of its employees for the work they performed – a violation of state labor laws commonly referred to as wage theft. State authorities later left $37,000 in liens on Cantina Investments, a company that Sandoval helped found in 2014, state and county business records show.

Paola Laverde, a spokeswoman for the Industrial Relations department that oversees the Labor Commissioner’s office, provided the Times with a different timeline, saying an attorney for Sandoval contacted the Wage Justice Center on Sept. 15 and quit soon after to respond to inquiries.

The Times first contacted Sandoval on September 15 about the wage cases.

“Ms. Sandoval’s attorney contacted the Wage Justice Center again this morning,” Laverde said Wednesday. “Still no payment received.”

Narro, who supported Sandoval in July, said he emailed Sandoval and her campaign staff about the payroll cases on Aug. 5 after learning about them from the head of the Payroll Justice Center, where he sits on the board. “I have expressed my deep concern and asked them to deal with it immediately,” he said.

Narro said he was disillusioned a week later after an employee at the Wage Justice Center told him Sandoval had not been in touch. The group, which is hired by the state labor commissioner, had previously sent two letters to Cantina Investments LLC in June, which had retained Sandoval as its agent to receive legal notices. The letters state that two former employees of the restaurant are owed a total of $12,271.

Sandoval said in her statement the controversy shows the status quo “will say or do anything” to stay in power.

“The timing of the allegations against Cantina Investments LLC is suspicious and intended to distract you from what is really going on here,” she said. “The status quo is lashing out … because they know residents of Wilmington, Harbor City, Harbor Gateway, Watts and San Pedro are fed up with being ignored by City Hall.”

The Times reported last week that three of the four workers at the Caliente Cantina — who earned between $10 and $12 an hour — identified Sandoval as the restaurant’s owner and testified about their interactions with her in 2015. One testified that Sandoval “kept making excuses” after asking for payment for nearly three weeks of work.

Sandoval has variously described her role at Caliente Cantina. In an interview, she said she is the owner of the restaurant. During another, she said she was a managing partner. In this week’s statement, it described itself as a “subsidiary” of Cantina Investments.

A man stands in a warehouse

Tim McOsker, shown in 2020, is running against Danielle Sandoval for a seat on the LA City Council.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Attorney Tim McOsker, Sandoval’s opponent in the race, criticized Sandoval for loaning her campaign $37,000 while her restaurant’s employees were still pressing for payment.

“[Sandoval] has chosen not to pay the workers but to pour tens of thousands of dollars into their own campaign,” he said in a text message.

Sandoval has run a competitive campaign, finishing second in the June 7 primary and securing support from United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom.

Councilwoman-elect Eunisses Hernandez, a rising voice on LA’s progressive political scene, has repeatedly promoted Sandoval on social media, urging her supporters to donate to her campaign. Earlier this week, Sandoval campaigned for support for two of her opponents in the June 7 primary – businessman Anthony Santich and Bryant Odega, an environmental justice activist.

Ödega admitted that both candidates “have their weaknesses”. But he said he stands by Sandoval — and would never support McOsker, a former City Hall lobbyist who represented the Los Angeles Police Department officers’ union.

“I just can’t trust someone with that kind of work history,” he said.

Narro said he initially supported Sandoval because he thought she was a “big progressive” — and because the council needed more women of color. He expressed frustration that the four workers in the Caliente Cantina case had waited seven years for their payment.

If Sandoval had known about the wage demands in July, she should have addressed the situation immediately, he said.

“Salary theft is ubiquitous in LA,” Narro said. “And it’s how you handle a situation involving wage theft that’s important.” Supporters drop L.A. city candidate after wage theft report

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