First & Spring

Wesson turns against Koreatown karaoke bar he once favored

A Koreatown nightspot, in trouble with city officials, becomes a campaign issue

The Koreatown karaoke bar known as La Defence is facing a heap of trouble.

A city zoning administrator has concluded the Wilshire Boulevard nightspot is such a drain on police resources, and frequent violator of city permitting rules, that it should no longer be allowed to sell alcohol. In a decision now being challenged, the official cited two rape reports involving women who'd been at the lounge, a drunk-driving arrest and a handful of assault cases.

For years, La Defence had a reliable ally in Council President Herb Wesson. But even Wesson, a longtime advocate for Koreatown's bar and restaurant scene, has turned against the restaurant/bar, saying it shouldn't receive another permit to serve alcohol.

How and when he arrived at that position is an issue in the March 3 election. Koreatown activist Grace Yoo, now running against Wesson, said her opponent should have spoken out much sooner against La Defence. Wesson, in response, said he decided months ago not to support the karaoke lounge.

"We came to the same conclusion" as the Police Department, which opposes the permit, said spokesman Ed Johnson in an email to The Times.

La Defence's history opens a window on the city's struggle to uphold the law in some of Koreatown's late-night drinking establishments. The Los Angeles Police Department's Olympic Division, which covers much of Koreatown, patrols an area with 441 businesses that serve alcohol, said Sgt. Julia Vincent, who heads the division's vice unit. Many of those businesses are venues for "hostesses," women paid to drink and sing with customers, she said.

Police officers have seen those women climb out of minivans, walk into La Defence and, if they are not selected by customers, go back to their vehicles and head to the next karaoke bar, Vincent said.

Hostesses, sometimes called B girls, help drive up drink sales. But when they push patrons to buy them drinks, they're also violating the law and, frequently, putting themselves in danger, Vincent said. "I'm getting a lot of rape cases across my desk, and they are B girls getting raped," she said.

Steve Kim, a land use consultant who spent much of last year representing La Defence at City Hall, would not discuss details of the current zoning case. But in paperwork filed last year, he said La Defence would shut down if it were to lose its alcohol permit. Kim, a former Wesson aide, also argued that police shouldn't link alcohol sales with public safety problems.

"Crippling the successful operation of this restaurant/lounge is not the rational remedy to reducing incidents of rape and DUI," he wrote.

La Defence first obtained its alcohol permit in 2007. The permit was opposed by activists who said the area was becoming saturated with such businesses. But Wesson backed the request and the Central Area Planning Commission, comprised of appointees of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the time, approved it.

Caron Kim, the owner of La Defence, and her husband, Nam Kouen Kim, each gave $500 to Wesson's reelection bid that year. Nam Kim also donated $1,000 to Villaraigosa's campaign in 2008. So did the bar's land use firm.

In 2009, the Kims sought to extend La Defence's hours to 2 a.m. A zoning administrator opposed the move, saying the business had violated terms of its city permit. Among the problems: Glass on doors to karaoke rooms were frosted, making it impossible to see what happens inside.

The official approved a midnight closing time. When the business appealed the decision, Wesson aide Michael Bai pushed for 2 a.m., telling planning commissioners that La Defence had "great, responsible" owners. "The owner and operator, Mr. Kim and Mrs. Kim, have … known Councilman Wesson for ten years and they've always been involved in community activities," he said.

The commission extended La Defence's hours to 2 a.m.

Five months later, Nam Kim was arrested after an incident at Elephant Snack Corner, a Koreatown restaurant. Elephant's owner said Kim hit him in the face with a glass sugar bowl, permanently damaging his vision, according to court records. Kim pleaded no contest to battery with a serious injury and was ordered by a judge to stay away from alcohol establishments — except for La Defence.

Kim's attorney, Norman Montrose, called the case "minor" and said his client complied with the terms of his probation. The case was later expunged. Caron Kim could not be reached.

La Defence's enforcement woes continued, records show. In 2011, LAPD officers repeatedly found the karaoke bar did not have two security guards on duty, as required. Doors to karaoke rooms were still obscured, police said. In 2013, a patron told police she left La Defence with a customer while heavily intoxicated and was later raped by him. She said her attacker then drove her back to Koreatown, throwing $100 bills at her as she cried, according to a police report.

La Defence applied for a new liquor permit in March. That month, police arrested one of the lounge's managers, alleging that he provided undercover officers two girls to drink with them in exchange for money. The city attorney's office did not pursue charges. But during that operation, police again noted the karaoke rooms had frosted glass and other obstructions.

Three months later, La Defence provided $300 worth of food and drink for a Wesson reelection fundraiser, according to campaign records.

In July, Zoning Administrator Lourdes Green held a hearing on La Defence's liquor permit. No one from Wesson's office weighed in, but Vincent, the LAPD sergeant, said the city should reject the permit request.

Wesson aides, looking for a solution that would keep the karaoke lounge open, set up a meeting two weeks later between the LAPD and La Defence representatives, Vincent said. Those talks did not prove fruitful, she said.

Green rejected La Defence's request for a new permit in September. La Defence appealed the decision to the Central Area Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti. At a meeting of the panel last month, Wesson deputy Elizabeth Carlin asked for the matter to be delayed 45 days so La Defence's new land use consultant could get up to speed on the case.

Carlin didn't tell commissioners what position, if any, Wesson had on the permit. Commissioners rejected the request from Wesson's office for a 45-day delay and set a hearing for this week.

Yoo, Wesson's opponent, attended last month's commission meeting and criticized the councilman for seeking to postpone a decision on La Defence's permit. "The police have been called to that location numerous times," she said.

The day after the commission's meeting, Wesson informed The Times he opposes a new alcohol permit for La Defence. Spokesman Johnson said the councilman requested the delay to give La Defence "appropriate due process." La Defence's owner had a medical issue the day of the hearing, Johnson said in an email.

Vincent said last week that she was surprised to learn of Wesson's opposition. She stressed that many other Koreatown karaoke spots comply with city and state rules. "They're successful good businesses, and that's what we want in K-town," she said

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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