One was a lobbyist and the other a councilor, but they were also best friends who thought they had a special bond.

Sigrid Lopez and Victoria Martinez Muela traveled together on a trip to Cuba. Lopez attended her friend’s wedding in 2017. The two are like sisters, said Martinez Muela, and both are key figures in the politics of the San Gabriel Valley.

But the friendship fell apart when Martinez Muela, a member of El Monte city council, voted against retail cannabis sales in the city, a proposal that Lopez had supported.

Now Lopez has signed an affidavit as part of a complaint filed with the Los Angeles County Attorney’s Office in May alleging that Martinez Muela may have accepted a $ 1,100 gift from her for a medical procedure and not in the financial statements has disclosed violation of the state’s political ethics law.

Lopez said in an interview that the money was for a breast augmentation operation for Martinez Muela.

In interviews with The Times, Martinez Muela didn’t deny accepting the financial support, but also said she didn’t do anything wrong. Lopez, she said, was a generous friend who also drove her to and from the procedure and looked after her afterward.

The prosecutor is examining the lawsuit, said a spokesman. It was filed by Andre Quintero, a district attorney with the Los Angeles District Attorney and a former El Monte mayor who clashed with Martinez Muela.

In the same statement, Lopez said she also gave financial support to Martinez Muela (she said she couldn’t remember the exact date) to help start a nonprofit organization. The statement doesn’t specify the amount, but in an interview Lopez said it was $ 1,500. Lopez and Martinez Muela are listed in government business records as officials for a charity called Angel’s Advocate, Inc. Martinez Muela admitted receiving assistance but couldn’t remember the amount. The project ultimately never got off the ground.

Lopez told the Times that a few years ago she paid $ 5,000 in expenses for Martinez Muela on her trip to Cuba, including hotels, flights, rum and cigars. The allegation is not part of the complaint to the public prosecutor’s office. Martinez Muela said the two traveled together but she paid her own way and Lopez didn’t buy her rum or cigars.

Both insist that their friendship was a real friendship: Lopez said any gifts or funds she gave away were not intended to influence Martinez Muela’s decisions and the councilor said she voted in principle and her friend not preferred.

Martinez Muela, who also works for a mental health nonprofit, insists the complaint is repayment for posing herself as a corruption fighter, raising alarms about conflicts of interest at town hall and alleged dubious deals related to cannabis licensing .

She and Quintero, who served as mayor for 11 years, were members of opposing political groups on the council, and she accuses him of exercising control over Lopez, who now owns pot companies named as lobbyists in a lawsuit allegedly being paid . To-play program competing for cannabis licenses in the city. Lopez, meanwhile, said she only signed the statement regarding her alleged gift to Martinez Muela because she could be dismissed in the lawsuit.

Both women said they felt used and betrayed by the other.

Experts said they weren’t surprised that cannabis, which has become a lucrative source of income after recreational use was legalized in California and fueled corruption in some cities, is now at a turning point.

Adam Spiker, executive director of the nonprofit Southern California Coalition, the largest marijuana trade association in Southland, said cannabis is a wedge issue that “can certainly widen the political divide.”

Lopez, 52, and Martinez Muela, 48, met at a 2011 political event in Sacramento after the councilor was first elected.

Lopez was a lobbyist for the El Monte bus route and a call service provider with a service contract worth millions of dollars. Their job was to make sure that the council members were happy with the company.

Sociable and with a knack for relationship building, she said she built a special bond with Martinez Muela, someone she “looked up to … like the popular girl in high school”.

“After a while, I stopped seeing her as a political officer, but as my best friend,” said Lopez.

In 2016, the week before Christmas, Lopez said Martinez Muela asked her for a personal favor. Martinez Muela wanted to have a breast augmentation but couldn’t pay the full cost and asked for a loan, Lopez said.

Lopez said she agreed to fill the gap. On December 29 of the same year, she said that she had brought Martinez Muela to Dr. Daniel J. Casper, a cosmetic surgeon in Pasadena, drove. There she said she paid Casper $ 1,100 with a debit card.

The statement had an attached bank statement showing a payment to Casper from one of Lopez’s business accounts. The doctor did not respond to requests for comment.

Martinez Muela said the breast augmentation was needed due to an illness. She did not want to comment on whether she disclosed the payment as requested. She denied Lopez’s characterization of the money as a loan, but declined to elaborate on it. Although not illegal, loans to political figures must be repaid and conditions set, otherwise they are labeled gifts.

Records show that Martinez Muela did not report the financial assistance in the required financial statements.

Bob Stern, co-author of the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act, said Martinez Muela may have violated the prohibition on officials accepting expensive gifts from people who want to influence their decisions, such as lobbyists. She may also have broken the law by not disclosing the gift, he said.

At the time of the trial, elected officials were not allowed to accept gifts totaling more than $ 460 annually from a single source, the complaint said.

There are some exceptions, such as gifts from longtime personal friends and acts of human compassion. However, Stern said these exemptions did not apply because Lopez first met Martinez Muela when she was an elected civil servant, and Lopez was representing a company with business before the council.

“Appearances of whether it is legal or not is not good at all. It really shows a lack of ethical understanding, ”said Stern. “The elected officer should obviously have known better.”

At the time Lopez was reportedly paying for her friend’s surgery, she was working as a lobbyist for Southland Transit, which was looking to renew its bus service contract.

On January 24, 2017, less than a month after the payment, Martinez Muela joined the council in a 4-0 vote to approve nearly $ 700,000 worth of contract renewals with Southland Transit, city records show. That May, Martinez-Muela was absent when the council approved a $ 3 million two-year deal with the company.

Lopez said the company never heard of her gifts to Martinez Muela. The company’s vice president Jason Snow said the company never approved and “never approved” such gifts.

Also in 2017, a cannabis company hired Lopez as a lobbyist to secure city council support for an ordinance that would allow cultivation in the city, Lopez said.

Lopez said she lobbied Martinez Muela and discussed the proposal with her over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles.

Martinez Muela voted in November to finally approve the regulation. The vote was 3-0, two other council members were missing.

More than a year later, the council approved projects for the cultivation, processing and distribution of cannabis near the Temple City and Rosemead border. Martinez Muela voted for the projects.

But when the city council decided to take measures to enable retail sales in November 2019, Martinez Muela voted against, calling the coalition of pot supporters an “outsider” on social media. Lopez said she took the comment as an insult, which showed Martinez Muela put politics above their friendship.

“She could just have abstained,” said Lopez.

“Please don’t let this … situation ruin you,” Martinez Muela said in a text message in one of her last conversations after the vote.

Lopez said she blocked her friend’s number and never spoke to her again.

Martinez Muela said she warned Lopez of her decision.

“That is the difference between politicians and civil servants. I’m your friend, but I have to vote that way because my community asks me to, ”she said.

She has since called for a state audit of the city and supported the allegations in the lawsuit over the city’s cannabis license scoring system, which claims a pay-to-play system licensed to companies that raised tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

She accused Lopez of collaborating with Quintero, the former mayor who filed the complaint with prosecutors, and current city officials to cover up the corruption.

Quintero denied contacting prosecutors on political grounds, claiming it was his duty as a citizen to report any suspected illegal behavior to the appropriate authorities.

“It is unfortunate that she would try to distract that way,” said Quintero.

Martinez Muela’s opponents have taken up Lopez’s gift allegations to accuse her of hypocrisy.

“She makes unfounded allegations of corruption by everyone else around her, and she has kept this a secret about her own behavior,” said Councilor Maria Morales. “It’s just amazing.”

Lopez said she signed the affidavit on the advice of her attorney, who said she would likely be dismissed in the pay-to-play lawsuit and asked under oath for payments to city officials. In her statement, Lopez said she had not provided financial assistance to any other El Monte councilor.

Lopez, no longer a lobbyist, now has her own cannabis stores, including a pharmacy in Maywood. In El Monte, her personal ventures attracted attention after receiving two of the six pharmacy licenses issued by the city. These decisions were made by the staff and an outside consultant and the council did not vote on them.

Lopez denies having any influence on the process.

When asked what she thought about the friendship in retrospect – whether it was real or just rooted in politics, Martinez Muela said: “It’s a sad question that all politicians have to ask themselves.”

“They always say when you’re in office, everyone takes your call,” she said.