By Mark Ryavec
The unfolding prosecution of councilman Jose Huizar for felony corruption 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 Mike Woo 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 last year, former councilman Mitchel Englander. 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 2009, developer Samuel Leung and Leung’s secretary Sofia David illegally gave tens of thousands of dollars to eight Los Angeles-area politicians who could approve the 352-unit Sea Breeze apartment project in south Los Angeles via donors who were all connected in some way to Leung. The project was ultimately approved in 2015.
In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that then-city councilmembers Janice Hahn and Mitchell Englander, and current city councilmembers Jose Huizar, Joe Buscaino, and Nury Martinez 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 contributions. But there was no audio or written evidence that those donations were traded for votes, so no charges were brought against those politicians.
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 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 apartments 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 have a huge investment in pending real estate projects that will need approvals from the Planning Department, Planning Commission, City Council, and the Mayor.
For example, in 2017, 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 and offices, and parking. In 2017 and 2018, Atlas was also seeking city council approval of a 725-unit development in Chinatown, which was granted in late 2018.
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 installing 100 oil wells along Pacific Coast Highway across from Will Rogers 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 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.
Mark Ryavec is president of Venice Stakeholders Association, a non-profit dedicated to civic improvement.