When controversial East L.A. businessman David Lizarraga tried to join the board of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2002, he thought the old network was entrenched, autocratic and wanted to keep him out. So he fought for reform, won a seat and soon became chairman.

But now that he’s about to start his sixth year as chairman of the organization – an unprecedented tenure – critics claim he’s become the entrenched autocrat. What’s more, they claim he’s undermining the group’s mission; some are calling for his resignation.

“During his tenure, there have been many significant bylaw revisions, specifically for the purpose of allowing him to remain chairman,” said Scott Flores, a Denver businessman who is former vice chair of the Hispanic chamber.

“Lizarraga intimidates many people because he’s a rich and powerful man,” said Flores. “But I’ve got nothing to lose.”

The accusations arose at the September meeting of the national Hispanic chamber, an umbrella group representing about 200 local business organizations across the United States. Based in Washington, D.C., the Hispanic chamber brings Latino business issues to the attention of government officials and corporate leaders. The group also seeks federal and corporate contracts for Hispanic companies.

For his part, Lizarraga allowed that he can be “decisive,” saying that the changes in bylaws weren’t made with the goal of concentrating his power but to adopt “best practices” modeled on other national groups.

“When I first came in to the chamber, I saw a good, status quo organization that hadn’t really changed with the times,” Lizarraga said. “I saw the need for the chamber to be more of an advocacy organization, but in order for the chamber to become a change agent, it needed to change.”

He said he has no intention of resigning and maintained that he’s improving the chamber.

“This organization has grown in responsiveness,” Lizarraga said. “You can be open and have discussions, but then you must be decisive. That’s how I am, and I serve at pleasure of the board.”

Political ties

Lizarraga rose to prominence through his work with Telacu Inc., which he helped start in 1968 as The East Los Angeles Community Union. The organization, an outgrowth of thwarted efforts by Lizarraga and allies to incorporate East Los Angeles as a city, soon landed a federal grant to convert an old B.F. Goodrich tire plant into an industrial park.

The deal quickly produced steady revenue for the non-profit. Since then, the organization has brought many construction real estate deals to the area, often with federal subsidies. Last year, Telacu had revenue of $130 million, according to Hispanic Business magazine.

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