By Mark Ryavec
The author is the president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, a non-profit dedicated to civic improvement. He previously served as a legislative analyst for the City of Los Angeles.
The unfolding prosecution of city councilman Jose Huizar for felony corruption, racketeering and money laundering is just the tip of the iceberg of scandalous behavior that is rampant in Los Angeles City Hall.
And the recent call by former city councilman Michael Woo in the Los Angeles Times for an independent inspector general does not come close to addressing the systemic corruption.
Start with the fact that the adoption of Woo’s ethics reforms 30 years ago gave us the ineffective regime of public financing, disclosure and campaign spending limits that has failed us so spectacularly in the cases of Huizar, and former councilman Mitchell Englander, who in his plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office acknowledged accepting cash in envelopes and other lavish gifts from a Southern California businessman during trips to Las Vegas and the Palm Springs area. It was magical thinking then for Woo and others to argue that simply setting spending limits, providing some public funding and requiring that all donations are made public would stop or hinder corruption.
One only needs to look at an earlier development scandal to see the ineffectiveness of those rules. Starting in 2008, developer Samuel Leung through his associates illegally gave tens of thousands of dollars to at least six Los Angeles-area politicians who could approve the 352-unit Sea Breeze apartment project in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of South Los Angeles via donors who were all connected in some way to Leung, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. The apartment project was ultimately approved in 2015.
In 2016, the Los Angeles Times also reported that then-city councilmembers Janice Hahn (who currently represents Marina del Rey on the LA County Board of Supervisors) and Mitchell Englander, and current city councilmembers Jose Huizar, Joe Buscaino and Nury Martinez were among the politicians who received more than $600,000 in donations over a seven-year period. An independent campaign committee that supported Mayor Eric Garcetti, but supposedly was not controlled by him, also received illicit contributions. But there was no audio or written evidence that those donations were traded for votes, so no charges were brought against those politicians, and only Leung and his associate Sofia David were charged.
But the corruption is broader and more insidious than the mere trade of city approvals for campaign cash. Those with financial interests in city hall decisions also donate to private charities either controlled by, or favored by, elected officials and little of that cash is tracked.
Only donations over $5,000 must be revealed.
Special interests, with multi-million dollar projects pending in city hall, also can and do funnel unlimited amounts of cash to other campaign committees not subject to the limits of the Woo reforms. These committees are set up by councilmembers to advance their personal political causes, but also can boost the councilmember’s reputation and name recognition. The unspoken agreement is: Special Interest A will give tens of thousands of dollars to the councilmember’s cause over here and later the councilmember will support the planning variances or “spot” zoning Special Interest A needs to increase the allowable height or density he wants for his project over there.
In late 2016, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin were hell-bent on passing Proposition HHH to build 10,000 units for the homeless. Atlas Capital Group was one of many developers that responded to Bonin’s request with a $25,000 donation to Bonin’s campaign committee to support HHH.
Why would Atlas make such a generous donation? Because they had a huge investment in pending (and future) real estate projects that would need approvals from the Planning Department, Planning Commission, city council and the mayor.
For example, in 2019, Atlas purchased the old Los Angeles Times’ printing plant in Downtown for $240 million.
The property includes about 660,000 square feet of manufacturing and distribution space, along with about 15 acres of developable open space. Atlas and its partners are also developing the Row DTLA project adjacent to LA’s Art District, turning 2 million square feet of warehouse space into a complex of stores, restaurants, offices and parking. In 2018, Atlas was also seeking city council approval of a 725-unit development in Chinatown, which was granted in 2019.
When approached for donations by councilmembers – or their fundraisers – developers like Atlas frequently feel that that they don’t have a choice. Contributions are simply a cost of doing business.
In the late ’80s I represented Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) in opposing Councilman Hal Bernson’s efforts to prematurely close Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills. At the same time, I was the lobbyist for No Oil, Inc. working to stop Occidental Petroleum from sinking 100 oil wells along Pacific Coast Highway across from Will Rogers State Beach. I asked BFI to give $5,000 to the campaign to pass No Oil’s Proposition O to ban drilling along Los Angeles’ coast, which would kill the Oxy project. They declined, so I gave the phone number of BFI’s vice president to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the sponsors of Prop. O, and suggested he call. The BFI vice president knew that some months later Yaroslavsky would be voting on whether to keep Sunshine Canyon open. BFI made the donation. Did Yaroslavsky vow to vote to keep Sunshine Canyon open? I doubt it even came up. These transactions go on all the time.
The city must curtail the ability of special interests – especially property developers – to give massive amounts of money to any committee controlled by a city elected official or even to respond to requests from politicians for donations to charitable organizations.
The existing rules for city elected officials campaign committees also must be tightened. When I ran for city council in the city’s 11th District in 2017, I limited donations to $250 (not the $700 allowed at the time), and accepted no donations from anyone living outside the 11th District or from anyone who had, or expected to have, a project or contract before the city council during my tenure in office.
While these standards severely limited the population from which I could raise funds, and the amount per person, they also significantly reduced the potential for anyone to have actual or apparent influence with me, if elected. The city should adopt these rules for campaign donations to cut-off the huge influence of special interest cash in our local elections.
Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position by The Argonaut. The opinions, experiences and research expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.