The mystery behind L.A. racist tape scandal: Who leaked it — and why?

L.A. Councilman Kevin de Leon Council President Nury Martinez confer at a meeting on Oct. 4, 2022.
Questions are swirling about the origins of a recording that captured Councilmember Kevin de León and then-council President Nury Martinez, among others, making racist, crude and bigoted remarks. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Three Los Angeles City Council members went to a squat office building near MacArthur Park last October to seek advice from an influential labor leader about solidifying their grip on power.

The strategy session was supposed to be a discreet backroom conversation, but as it got underway in a private room at the headquarters of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, someone was recording it. Over the next hour, a device captured the Democratic politicians and the labor leader, all Latino, speaking contemptuously about those they regarded as rivals or impediments. The recordings included racist, bigoted and crude remarks about Black, Jewish, Armenian, Indigenous and gay people.

“My goal in life is to get the three of you elected, and you know, I'm just focused on that,” Ron Herrera, president of the federation, told Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León at one point. “I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.”

The politicians departed apparently oblivious to the taping, and for the next 11 months, the explosive recording remained a secret. It was not until Sunday when The Times reported the contents that it became widely known, triggering a cascade of outrage that reached all the way to the White House.

With L.A. still reeling from the contents of the audio, much about the recording itself remains a mystery: Who made it? And how? Who leaked it? And why?

In the midst of the rage and soul-searching, unearthing the leaker has become a parlor game among the politically savvy. Some have speculated that the meetings were recorded for note-taking; some have wondered if a disgruntled labor union employee is responsible; others have pointed to political enemies of the trio of council members.

“Friends of mine who used to be in politics, we are all speculating,” said former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “We are all the blind leading the blind here. I have no idea.”

The timing of the leak, in the run-up to the mayoral election and other key races, suggests a classic October surprise designed to kneecap a candidate on the eve of voting. Yet experienced political hands said that although the leak hurt the elected officials involved, it did not seem to benefit — or harm — anyone on the ballot.

“Not in any huge way,” said former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who was the first Latina on the L.A. City Council. “Whether it affects people’s decision on who to vote, I don’t think so.”

What is clear is that whoever made the recording had access to the inner sanctum of one of the most powerful organized labor groups in the nation. The conversation occurred Oct. 18, 2021, inside the offices of the L.A. County Federation, an umbrella group for 300 labor unions and 800,000 workers that wields tremendous and sometimes controversial sway in the city.

Democratic politicians routinely visit the offices of “the Fed” on James M. Woods Boulevard to seek favors from labor unions and arrange campaign help. The federation can mobilize large numbers of union members to pitch in for candidates and is currently helping U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in her mayoral bid by making phone calls to potential voters.

On the day that the three politicians visited, the council was poised to take up an issue of unparalleled importance to its members: the redrawing of council district boundaries with its attendant ability to make or end political careers. At the start of the highly sensitive discussions, the politicians and Herrera spoke calmly about their shared view that Black voters were overrepresented in L.A. and neighboring municipalities with large Latino populations.

“From the Comptons to the Gardenas … you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Mexican,” Cedillo said.

But as the meeting continued, it turned rollicking, profane and offensive. Few ethnic groups or important political figures were spared, and in what many see as the lowest moment, Martinez disparaged Councilmember Mike Bonin’s Black son using a Spanish word meaning “little monkey” and suggesting the toddler needed to be beaten to make him behave.

It’s not known why anyone who worked in or visited the union organization would have wanted to memorialize such a depraved and potentially damaging conversation. The federation’s own employees later condemned their boss, Herrera, for “inaction to speak out against Anti-Black, Anti-Indigenous, and Anti-LGBTQ statements being made in our office.” In an internal memo Sunday, the federation indicated that its premises had been bugged.

"Many private and confidential conversations in private offices and conference rooms at the LA Fed have been illegally recorded in violation of California privacy and recording laws," the memo said.

The federation declined to make officials available for an interview. Though the organization vowed to affiliates that it would seek prosecution of the perpetrators, a spokeswoman said Wednesday that the organization has not reported the taping to law enforcement. Asked whether the federation knew whether the recording had been done by using a phone or some other method, the spokeswoman gave a one-word answer: “No.”

However the recording was made and wherever it was stored, it stayed out of public view until last month. In the interim, the council carried out a contentious redistricting process and voted on several hotly disputed matters, including banning homeless encampments near schools. In their work, Martinez, Cedillo and De León were frequent allies and all three came under sharp criticism from the city’s left on homelessness and other issues.

Then on Sept. 19, an anonymous user created a Reddit account called Honest-Finding-1581 and posted a screed in the popular r/LosAngeles forum titled “LA County Federation of Labor” that mentioned the surreptitious recording.

“When you actually hear it, it’s unbelievable,” the poster wrote. “The labor movement is in bed with City Hall. All you have to do is look close and listen to the recording I just received of LA Fed President Ron Herrera and Nury Martinez (no relation, lol). Someone helped me connect the dots earlier this month.”

Who the other Martinez the poster referenced is unclear.

“When I saw it was on Reddit the first thing I thought was: This is somebody who understands that it is safe and easy to put something out on Reddit and let the wave of Reddit push forward the story rather than handle it directly,” said Karen North, a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor and an expert in digital media.

“When you put it on Reddit, it is very hard to find the starting point,” she said.

The post nodded to the ongoing mayor’s race: “If Rick Caruso wins the Mayor’s race, he will clean house at City Hall, including making sure Nury Martinez is out.”

(Mayors do not have the power to oust councilmembers; Caruso said Wednesday, “We have no knowledge of or involvement in these recordings and we condemn them.”)

The post was up for only a brief time before Reddit moderators flagged and removed it. A moderator said in a post since the recording's release that it was taken down because it contained "a bunch of unsourced claims and looked like a pro-Caruso smear campaign."

Honest-Finding reposted the comments on its profile and three days later, added a 15-minute clip of some of the most shocking parts of the meeting in which there were antisemitic and anti-Armenian remarks.

Honest-Finding continued adding additional recordings over the next two weeks. Not all were of the councilmembers' meeting. Some featured Herrera in conversation with unknown individuals. In the nine leaked audio clips, Herrera speaks in at least eight of them, accounting for nearly 17 minutes of speaking time.

In one file, the union chief said that progressive council candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez had lost touch with “his roots,” and an unidentified woman agreed that he was “a big sellout.”

Soto-Martinez said of the recordings in a statement Wednesday: “They call me ‘entitled,’ even as they rig the redistricting boundaries to protect corrupt incumbents.”

For 14 days, bombshell recordings were available to anyone with an internet connection, but marooned on Honest-Finding’s rarely visited profile page, they attracted little attention.

Then on Oct. 6, someone created a Twitter account @LAunionLaundry and posted a brief recording of Herrera, tagging several reporters and local political accounts. Word quickly spread and The Times and others began listening to the recordings. Both the Twitter and Reddit accounts have been silent since.

The content seemed to stun all corners of the city, including people who normally had little interest in politics. Council meetings Tuesday and Wednesday were interrupted by furious protesters, who said they intend to keep returning to the council chamber until all three have stepped down. President Biden wanted all three to leave office, the White House press secretary said Tuesday. Herrera resigned his post, and Martinez stepped down as council president, then took a leave of absence and then Wednesday, resigned completely. Cedillo and De León remain on the council.

Times staff writers Jaimie Ding, Jessica Garrison, Matt Hamilton, Salvador Hernandez, Daniel Miller, Margot Roosevelt, Julia Wick and David Zahniser contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.