Editorial: Taking a Look at Campaign Contributions in Los Angeles

Ever wonder why some city development projects seem to go through faster than others? Ever wonder why some seem to have Midas touch and others are stalled? In October, the News visited ethics.lacity.org and discovered that when you click on 2017 elections, it allows you to go to Council District 11 and Mike Bonin and view who his contributors are to date.

The maximum that an individual can give to a city politician is $700. What amazed the News was the number of people who live in Culver City, Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley that gave to Bonin, a councilman who doesn’t represent them.

One deduces that even if they don’t live here, such as five Caruso employees—David Liston (Simi Valley), David Williams (Thousand Oaks), Joel Moskowtiz (West Hollywood), Matt Middlebrook (San Francisco), Kelly Masuda (Palos Verdes)—and two with Los Angeles addresses, Jackie Levy and Thomas Veje, they have a high interest in a project in the Palisades—and would contribute to the councilman who is most closely associated with the project.

Then on Oct. 30, an L.A.Times article was published, “A $72-million Apartment Project. Top Politicians. Unlikely Donors” by David Zahnisher and Emily Alpert Reyes.

More than 100 campaign contributors with a direct or  indirect connection to Samuel Leung, a Torrance-based developer donated more than $600,000 to support Janice Hahn, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other L.A.-area politicians between 2008 and 2015, as Leung was seeking city approval for the $72-million development in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

The reporters found that Victor Blanco, a repairman originally from El Salvador, gave the most: 22 donations totaling $20,300 since 2008. When asked about the money, Blanco couldn’t recall.

Also on the ethics website are the lobbying reports and the money spent.

Looking at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell, we found the company Helios Group Distressed Real Estate, which is the owner of 16815 Bollinger. About $7,118 was spent in the first quarter, that ended March 31, 2016, for lobbyists who spoke to city officials in Building and Safety.

To recap: in Sept. 8, 2015, a demolition permit was issued for the garage on the property. Instead, the entire house, including the garage, was torn down.

Neighbors went to L.A. city inspectors and told them the posted notice said it was a remodel. Neighbors told the Palisades News that the inspector dismissed their concerns.

Framing started and the new structure soon towered over existing homes. Residents contacted the city with concerns in late December, but there was no response.

Three weeks later, neighbors saw on a city website that their complaints had been dismissed and the case closed.

Neighbors continued to reach out to the city and went to Councilman Mike Bonin’s office. In April, construction stopped with the notice that it was being done without permits or inspections.

Another client of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell is Palisades Drive, L.P. (1525 Palisades Dr.), owned by Rony Shram. He first appeared before the Pacific Palisades Community Council in November 2014. He wanted to build 33 apartment-style units in the Highlands, but the property has to be rezoned first from mixed-use to residential.

The lobbying firm shows $8,755 was spent the last quarter of 2014 for entitlements. Over four quarters— and through March 2016, sums of $2,590, $6,8441, $7,210 and $1,239 were spent.

Perfectly legal for an individual or firm to hire lobbyists to help push through projects in the city. Perfectly legal to give $700 campaign contributions to various city officials.

Is it illegal for a developer to pay individuals to give donations? We don’t know, but it certainly seems unethical.

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