Three members of the Los Angeles City Council went to a squatted office building near MacArthur Park last October to seek advice from an influential union leader on how to consolidate their power.
The strategy session was supposed to be a discreet backroom talk, but when it started in a private room at the LA County Federation of Labor headquarters, someone recorded it. For the next hour, a device captured the Democratic politicians and the union leader, all Latinos, who spoke disparagingly of those they saw as rivals or obstacles. The footage contained racist, bigoted and rude remarks about blacks, Jews, Armenians, indigenous people and gays.
“My goal in life is to elect you three and you know, that’s what I’m focused on,” Ron Herrera, president of the federation, once told council members Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León. “I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.”
Politicians apparently left the studio without noticing the recording, and for the next 11 months the explosive recording remained a mystery. It wasn’t until the Times reported the content on Sunday that it became widely known, sparking a cascade of outrage that reached the White House.
With LA still reeling from the content of the audio, much about the recording itself remains a mystery: who made it? And how? Who leaked it? And why?
Amid the anger and soul-searching, uncovering the leaker has become a parlor game among the politically savvy. Some have speculated that the meetings were recorded to take notes; some have wondered if a disgruntled union worker was to blame; others have pointed to political enemies of the trio of councillors.
“Friends of mine who used to be in politics, we’re all speculating,” said former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “We are all blind here leading the blind. I have no idea.”
The timing of the leak ahead of the mayoral election and other key races suggests a classic October surprise, designed to knock a candidate in the knee on the eve of voting. But experienced political hands said that while the leak hurt the elected officials involved, it didn’t appear to help – or hurt – anyone on the ballot.
“Not in a big way,” said Gloria Molina, a former Los Angeles Borough Chair who was the first Latina on the LA City Council. “Whether it affects people’s decision of who to vote for, I don’t think so.”
What is clear is that whoever took the shot had access to the inner sanctum of one of the nation’s most powerful organized labor groups. The call took place on October 18, 2021 at the offices of the LA County Federation, an umbrella organization of 300 unions and 800,000 workers that wields tremendous and sometimes controversial influence in the city.
Democratic politicians routinely visit the “Fed” offices on James M. Woods Boulevard to solicit favors from unions and arrange for campaign assistance. The association is able to mobilize large numbers of union members to campaign for candidates and is currently assisting US Rep. Karen Bass in her mayoral election by calling potential voters.
On the day the three politicians visited, the council was poised to take up an issue of unprecedented importance for its members: the redefining of council district boundaries with the associated opportunity to make or end political careers. Early in the highly sensitive discussions, the politicians and Herrera calmly shared their shared view that black voters were overrepresented in LA and neighboring communities with large Latino populations.
“From the Comptons to the Gardenas … You can’t throw a stone without hitting a Mexican,” Cedillo said.
But as the meeting progressed, it became boisterous, profane and abusive. Few ethnic groups or key political figures were spared, and in what many see as the most poignant moment, Martinez slurred council member Mike Bonin’s black son with a Spanish word meaning “little monkey” and suggested that the toddler had to be hit to make him behave.
It is not known why anyone who worked in or visited the union organization would want to commemorate such a corrupt and possibly damaging conversation. The association’s own employees later condemned their boss, Herrera, for “failing to speak out against anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and anti-LGBTQ statements made in our office.” In an internal memo on Sunday, the association stated that its premises had been bugged.
“Many private and confidential conversations in private offices and conference rooms of the LA Fed were illegally recorded in violation of California privacy and record keeping laws,” the memo said.
The association declined to make officials available for an interview. Although the organization promised its affiliates it would prosecute the perpetrators, a spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the organization had not reported the recordings to law enforcement. When asked whether the association knew whether the recording was made by telephone or in some other way, the spokeswoman answered in one word: “No”.
However the recording was made and wherever it was stored, it remained hidden from the public until last month. Meanwhile, the council conducted a contentious redistricting process and voted on several hotly contested issues, including banning homeless camps near schools. In their work, Martinez, Cedillo, and De León were frequent allies, and all three faced harsh criticism from the city’s left on homelessness and other issues.
Then, on September 19, an anonymous user created a Reddit account named Honest-Finding-1581 and posted a screed on the popular r/LosAngeles forum titled “LA County Federation of Labor,” detailing the clandestine record was mentioned.
“When you actually hear it, it’s amazing,” the poster wrote. “The labor movement is in bed with the town hall. All you have to do is look carefully and listen to the recording I just received from LA Fed President Ron Herrera and Nury Martinez (no relation lol). Someone helped me connect the dots earlier this month.”
It’s unclear who the other Martinez is referring to.
“When I saw it was on Reddit, my first thought was, This is someone who understands that it’s safe and easy to post on Reddit and let the wave of Reddit drive the story rather than cover it head on said Karen North, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a digital media expert.
“When you put it on Reddit, it’s very difficult to find the starting point,” she said.
The Post nodded to the ongoing mayoral race: “If Rick Caruso wins the mayoral race, he’ll be cleaning City Hall and making sure Nury Martinez isn’t there.”
(Mayors do not have the power to oust council members; Caruso said Wednesday, “We have no knowledge of or involvement in these recordings and we condemn them.”)
The post was only live for a short time before Reddit moderators flagged and removed it. A moderator has said in a post since the recording was published that it was removed because it “contained a series of unsourced claims and appeared to be a pro-Caruso smear campaign.”
Honest-Finding reposted the comments on his profile and three days later added a 15-minute clip of some of the most shocking parts of the meeting, which included anti-Semitic and anti-Armenian remarks.
Honest-Finding added more recordings over the next two weeks. Not all were from the Assembly of Councillors. Some showed Herrera talking to unidentified people. In the nine leaked audio clips, Herrera speaks in at least eight of them, totaling nearly 17 minutes of speaking time.
In a filing, the union leader said progressive council candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez had lost touch with “his roots,” and an unidentified woman agreed he was “a big sellout.”
Soto-Martinez said in a statement Wednesday about the recordings, “They call me ‘eligible’ even though they manipulate redistribution borders to protect corrupt incumbents.”
For 14 days, bombshell footage was available to anyone with an internet connection, but stranded on Honest-Finding’s seldom-visited profile page, it drew little attention.
Then, on October 6, someone created a Twitter account @LAunionLaundry and posted a brief recording of Herrera tagging multiple reporters and local political accounts. Word spread quickly, and The Times and others began listening to the recordings. Both the Twitter and Reddit accounts have been silent since then.
The content seemed to baffle all corners of the city, including people who normally had little interest in politics. Council meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday were interrupted by angry protesters who said they intend to return to the council chamber until all three have resigned. President Biden wanted all three to leave office, the White House press secretary said Tuesday. Herrera resigned from his post, and Martinez resigned as council president, then took a leave of absence and fully resigned on Wednesday. Cedillo and De León remain on the council.
Times contributors Jaimie Ding, Jessica Garrison, Matt Hamilton, Salvador Hernandez, Daniel Miller, Margot Roosevelt, Julia Wick, and David Zahniser contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-13/la-city-council-nury-martinez-racist-who-leaked-audio Who leaked audio of Nury Martinez’s racist remarks? And why?