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Ex-lobbyist joins councilman's staff and questions follow

Councilman Curren Price staffer Robert Katherman says he is careful to avoid conflict of interest with his wife's advocacy firm, but some critics remain troubled.

By David Zahniser

9:22 PM PDT, September 26, 2013

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Three weeks after being sworn in as a new representative for South Los Angeles, Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price announced his support for a new liquor permit at a market in the north end of his district.

Two weeks later, Price backed alcohol sales at a supermarket in Councilman Gil Cedillo's district. And this month, Price voted to let a Central Avenue grocery store in his district sell liquor until 2 a.m.

All three businesses had hired the Katherman Co., a well-established, City Hall advocacy firm, to help navigate the city's serpentine permitting process. During the same period, Price's advisor on planning and economic development issues was Robert Katherman, the firm's founder who, days before joining the councilman's staff, made his wife the sole owner of the company.

Katherman, a longtime City Hall lobbyist, said that since joining Price's staff, he has avoided decisions affecting his wife's clients. As long as that continues, state conflict-of-interest laws permit the councilman to act on proposals that benefit Katherman's wife and her firm.

But in at least one case, city lawyers have advised Katherman to stop working on an issue involving a former client. And Katherman Co.'s record of success in securing alcohol permits in South Los Angeles, where liquor sales have long been controversial, also troubles some critics.

"You're going to have someone on [the council office] staff whose family advocates for more alcohol sales," said Ron Gochez, who ran unsuccessfully against Price in this year's council election. "Given that [Katherman] is handling development and zoning, that's dangerous, especially in our community."

Robert Stern, an expert on state and city ethics laws, said the arrangement creates a "perception problem," with Price making decisions that benefit Katherman's wife and, indirectly, Katherman.

Katherman's move from lobbying to a council office is somewhat unusual for City Hall, where political aides are much more likely to spend time working for lawmakers, building political and government contacts, and then find higher paid consulting and advocacy jobs.

Since the May election, an array of managers and staffers have made such moves. Jimmy Blackman, chief of staff to former Councilman Dennis Zine, now has a consulting firm representing clients that include the city's firefighters union. Celine Cordero, until recently director of external affairs for Los Angeles World Airports, went to a lobbying firm with more than 40 City Hall clients. And Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for former City Controller Wendy Greuel, helped form a communications firm whose clients include Working Californians, a group with ties to the union that represents Department of Water and Power employees.

Katherman, who joined Price's staff July 1, spent years building a lobbying and land use planning firm with dozens of clients — real estate developers, restaurants, liquor stores and others. The Torrance-based firm collected nearly $2.2 million in lobbying fees between 2003 and 2012 in the city of Los Angeles. In recent years, at least eight Katherman clients had business in what is now Price's South Los Angeles district. Katherman also raised money for an array of local candidates, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and Price.

Katherman, who is being paid about $103,000 annually, said his stint with Price is a "last hurrah." At 67, he has no intention of returning to lobbying, he said.

"I think I can help our district, which is the poorest district in the city of Los Angeles," he added.

Price said Katherman's experience on planning issues — including previous stints working at the city's airport and planning departments — will be "invaluable" in luring new business to his working-class district. The councilman also said Katherman's former liquor clients sold more than just alcohol and were supported by the LAPD when they appeared before the city.

"His former firm represented full-service supermarkets and convenience stores that sell a mix of products ... bringing healthy foods to neighborhoods," Price said in an email statement.

City Ethics Commission records show Katherman's wife received between $10,000 and $100,000 from Katherman Co. in the 12 months leading up to his hiring at City Hall. Katherman said he received the same amount from his former firm during that period.

A resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, Katherman said he stopped lobbying in December and checked with the city's lawyers after agreeing to work for Price. The city attorney instructed him to "stay away from the stuff" his wife is working on, he said.

Still, city lawyers recently advised Katherman to steer clear of a project that he had already spent six weeks working on: a plan to add bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly improvements to a stretch of Figueroa Street.

That initiative, known as My Figueroa, has drawn a challenge from the Shammas Automotive Group, which has car dealerships in the area. Until May, Shammas and one of its dealerships, Downtown L.A. Motors Mercedes-Benz, was a Katherman Co. client, according to records and interviews.

Katherman originally told The Times that he hoped to negotiate an agreement that would cause the auto dealer to "back off." Days later, Price sent an email to The Times saying that because Shammas had filed a written challenge to the Figueroa plan, Katherman had been advised by the city's lawyers to stop working on the issue.

Katherman's wife, Marilyn Greer Katherman, said her company will steer clear of Price's district in coming years. But Price has already weighed in on a request from Johnny's Market, a Katherman Co. client that is looking to relocate on Broadway Place.

Price signed a letter July 22 supporting the store's request to sell alcohol until 11 p.m., saying he was pleased that the owner, businessman Trinh Tran, planned to sell more fresh fruit and produce in his new location.

The councilman also voted two weeks ago to support liquor sales at a recently approved Northgate Gonzalez supermarket in his district.  Northgate Gonzalez paid Katherman’s firm more than $110,000 in lobbying fees between 2009 and 2011 and was still a client of the firm at the time of Price’s vote,  according to city records.

Katherman said he wasn't involved in Price's deliberations on the supermarket, part of a planned shopping center at Slauson and South Central avenues. Price praised the project and said the city's lawyers had no objection to his voting on the liquor issue.

Gochez, the neighborhood activist, isn't satisfied. "Knowing that there's such a close connection to this company, the ethical thing to do would have been to abstain," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com