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L.A. developer pleads not guilty in campaign money laundering case

L.A. developer pleads not guilty in campaign money laundering case
Samuel Leung, left, with his lawyer, Daniel V. Nixon, during an April appearance in Los Angeles Superior Court. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A real estate developer pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he made illegal donations to local politicians while pushing for them to support his $72-million apartment project.

Samuel Leung, the developer behind the Sea Breeze project in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood, was charged in February with conspiring to launder campaign money and offering bribes to a legislator.

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Prosecutors with the L.A. County district attorney’s office said Leung and an associate, Sofia David, recruited employees, family members and others as “straw donors” to funnel money to local politicians in the hopes of getting a Sepulveda Boulevard lot rezoned so that homes could be built there.

The criminal charges came more than a year after a Times investigation into political donations linked to Leung.

Leung and David made political donations without revealing that money either came from Leung or was reimbursed by him and “others acting at his direction,” prosecutors charged in February. Under state law, a donor cannot make a political contribution under the name of another person.

Leung was also charged with offering bribes and attempting “by corrupt means” to influence a lawmaker on his or her vote. Prosecutors have declined to name the target of the alleged bribes or to provide further details about the basis for the charge.

Leung, 67, declined to comment outside the courtroom Monday before making his plea.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, also declined to comment on the charges. During the hearing, Nixon told Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan that his client was denying all of the allegations against him.

As of Monday morning, David, who had a warrant issued for her arrest in February, had yet to be arrested in the case, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Eugene Hanrahan. The Times has been unable to locate her for comment.

The Times’ investigation found that more than 100 donors linked directly or indirectly to Leung had made contributions totaling more than $600,000 to area politicians while Sea Breeze was under review. Eleven of those donors denied making contributions or said they did not remember doing so.

Before the charges were filed, Leung told reporters who approached him at the Department of Building and Safety that he did not reimburse any donors, but declined further comment.

The Sea Breeze project was slated for a vacant site that was designated for manufacturing, not housing. The Department of City Planning and a city commission had opposed a zone change. But Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council backed the change, allowing the project to move forward.

In the criminal complaint, prosecutors singled out donations from Leung and his associates to political committees that backed eight politicians: Garcetti; City Council members Joe Buscaino, Mitchell Englander, Jose Huizar, Gil Cedillo and Nury Martinez; former state Assemblyman and council candidate Warren Furutani; and Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who was serving as a councilwoman when Leung first proposed his project.

In response to questions from The Times, each politician mentioned in the complaint has said they were not offered bribes by either Leung or his representatives. Hanrahan, the deputy district attorney, declined to comment Monday on whether a bribe could be offered to a lawmaker without his or her knowledge.

Yusef Robb, who advises Garcetti on political matters, said in February that the committee that received the money was “an entirely independent committee of which we were barely aware and had nothing to do with,” not his mayoral campaign. Donors linked to Leung provided $60,000 to an independent expenditure committee, Committee for a Safer Los Angeles, which backed Garcetti for mayor in 2013.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever met him, talked to him,” Garcetti said a few days after the charges were filed. “The full weight of the law should come down on this guy.”

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The next hearing in the case is scheduled for August. If convicted, Leung faces up to four years and eight months in state prison.

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