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Money flows, developer prevails: An L.A. City Hall exposé that begs an official investigation

Over and over and over again, when elected officials are asked about conflicts of interest created by campaign donations, they fall back on the same answer.

No need to worry. They can’t be influenced, because they make decisions based on conviction, not cash.

We are free to believe this.

We are also free to believe there is no climate change, and that the Rams are going to win the Super Bowl.

But if you saw The Times on Sunday, you might have formed new doubts about the influence of cash on the political process. Hell, you might even have felt an urge to gather up neighbors and storm City Hall with pitchforks.

About a dozen local politicians received $600,000 from people associated with a developer who wanted to build a $72-million apartment complex near the Port of Los Angeles.

The land wasn’t zoned for housing.

But it didn’t matter.

The planning department rejected the proposal.

But it didn’t matter.

The Planning Commission was unanimously against the project.

But it didn’t matter.

Mother’s milk flowed. Politicians bowed. The man with the checkbook prevailed.

Samuel Leung, a Torrance-based developer, managed to work around rules, crush opposition, and have his way. Unless you have blood pressure problems, you should take a hard look — if you haven’t already — at The Times’ exposé by David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes that took a club to L.A.’s pay-to-play culture.

City Hall should be checked for cracks in the foundation and then fumigated.

Leung didn’t make $600,000 worth of donations, between 2008 and 2015, to City Council members, aspiring politicians and an independent campaign committee that supported Mayor Eric Garcetti.

But the man apparently has tons of friends. More than 100 donations were made by contributors with a direct or indirect connection to him. A chef. A landscaper. Handymen. People you wouldn’t expect to have wads of spare cash in their pockets, or a burning desire to throw it at politicians.

One guy, a repairman, was listed as the donor behind 22 donations totaling $20,300, more than half of it going to U.S. Rep Janice Hahn while she was in, or running for, local, state and federal office.

Read more: Politicians and activists demand answers on mystery donations tied to 'Sea Breeze' developer »

Geez, maybe I should call Leung and ask if I can be a repairman too. The guy must pay top dollar.

Just one problem.

Asked why he gave Hahn more than $10,000, the repairman couldn’t remember.

And he wasn’t the only one in the story who seems to be suffering from amnesia.

There’s an epidemic out there.

Eleven donors contacted by The Times either denied having made donations or didn’t remember making them.

Dozens of others clammed up.

One supposed donor to Hahn didn’t seem to know who she was.

Another donor, who gave to more than one candidate, said one of her donations was reimbursed by her sister-in-law, but she didn’t want to elaborate.

“She already told me not to tell anything about it,” she said.

Who the heck was running this operation? Come on, you’ve got to tie up loose ends, cover your tracks, maybe hand out campaign buttons to make it look real.

This thing reads like a mix of “All the King’s Men,” “Chinatown” and “Duck Soup.”

And it begs a formal inquiry. The district attorney’s office said Monday that it’s going to take a look, and well it should.

If money was donated by one person in the name of another, that’s illegal. If money was donated by someone who was then reimbursed by another person, that’s illegal. If a candidate knowingly receives laundered money, that’s illegal.

And we’re talking about large sums of cash.

Hahn got a whopping $203,500 from Leung-associated donors.

Councilman Joe Buscaino got $94,700.

A committee that supported Garcetti got $60,000.

Councilman Mitch Englander got $65,800.

Councilman Jose Huizar got $30,400.

Garcetti, by the way, exercised his authority to reduce the number of votes required to approve the project. A spokesperson said the mayor was unaware of the donations and had no involvement with the committee that received the $60,000. Other politicians said their positions on the project were not influenced by donations.

You can take them at their word if you’re so inclined. But if donations are flying in from people you don’t know, many of whom don’t live in your district, shouldn’t you be a little suspicious? And shouldn’t we immediately double or triple the staff of the Ethics Commission so every dollar is subjected to a smell test going forward?

“Developer money is greasing development in unseemly ways, and has put a For Sale sign up on City Council,” said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog.

He said the elected officials should return the donations, and he called for an investigation.

“It’s going to take an independent prosecutor being assigned, or the FBI coming in, to get real answers because City Hall has become a cesspool of influence peddling with insiders unwilling and unable to investigate each other’s misconduct,” said Court.

If this much money passed hands, undetected until Zahniser and Alpert Reyes began digging through records and knocking on doors, you have to wonder about dozens of other projects that wind their way through the review-and-approval sausage factory:

Was it the exception, or is it the norm?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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