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L.A. developer is charged with making illegal campaign donations

L.A. developer is charged with making illegal campaign donations
Samuel Leung, left, with his lawyer, Daniel V. Nixon, in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday. Leung was charged with making illegal campaign donations in connection with an apartment project he was seeking to develop. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The developer of a controversial $72-million apartment project was charged Friday with making illegal campaign contributions to local politicians while seeking a change to the zoning of his property in L.A.'s Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

Prosecutors with L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's office charged Samuel Leung, developer of the 352-unit Sea Breeze project, with one felony count of conspiracy to commit campaign money laundering and one felony count of offering to bribe a legislator. Leung made "tens of thousands of dollars" in illegal donations, the office announced.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Eugene Hanrahan declined to name the target of the alleged bribe. Sofia David, identified by prosecutors as Leung's secretary, was also charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit campaign money laundering.

The filing comes more than a year after a Los Angeles Times investigation showed that more than 100 donors who were directly or indirectly connected to Leung had made donations totaling more than $600,000 to L.A.-area politicians while his Sea Breeze project was being reviewed. Of those who donated, 11 denied making contributions or said they didn't remember doing so when contacted by The Times.

One told The Times that she had been reimbursed for at least one donation. Leung's arraignment is set for April 11.

Leung and his attorney, Daniel V. Nixon, had no comment when approached by The Times at Friday's hearing.

Prosecutors said Leung, 67, and David, 58, recruited employees, family members and others to act as "straw donors" to funnel money to local politicians in an effort to have his property, an empty lot on Sepulveda Boulevard, rezoned so that homes could be built.

Residential complexes under development at the Sea Breeze project on Friday.
Residential complexes under development at the Sea Breeze project on Friday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council backed the project in 2015, changing the zoning so that it was no longer designated for manufacturing.

State law prohibits anyone from making a political contribution using someone else's name. According to the criminal complaint, Leung and David made multiple contributions without disclosing that money "either originated from, or was reimbursed by, Leung and others acting at his direction."

The district attorney's complaint highlighted donations from Leung and his associates to political committees that supported Garcetti and seven other politicians: City Council members Joe Buscaino, Mitchell Englander, Jose Huizar, Gil Cedillo and Nury Martinez; former state Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who lost a bid for council in 2012, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

Donors linked to Leung provided $60,000 in 2013 to an independent expenditure committee, Committee for a Safer Los Angeles, which backed Garcetti for mayor in 2013.

Yusef Robb, a political advisor to the mayor, said that if the allegations are true, Leung and David should "pay the price." He said the committee that received the money was completely separate from Garcetti's 2013 mayoral campaign.

"It's important to note that these funds went to an entirely independent committee of which we were barely aware and had nothing to do with," he said.

Hahn, in a statement, said she hoped the charges would "send a message to donors about the consequences of violating campaign donation laws."

"If they broke the law, they should be prosecuted and found guilty. I appreciate the seriousness with which the District Attorney's office is treating this case," she said.

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Hahn was a councilwoman representing Harbor Gateway when Leung first proposed his project in 2009. While she was in office, donors connected to Leung, either directly or indirectly, made contributions to her campaigns for council, lieutenant governor and Congress, as well as her office holder account.

After Hahn went to Washington, D.C., she was replaced on the council by Buscaino, who endorsed the project despite opposition from residents in Harbor City. Buscaino received at least $94,700 in donations from contributors connected to Leung, according to a Times review of contributions.

In 2015, shortly before the council vote on Sea Breeze, Buscaino co-hosted a fundraiser for Martinez, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley. Martinez took in at least $7,700 from donors connected to Leung, according to a Times review of records.

The Times investigation on Sea Breeze raised major questions about whether someone else was the source of the money — a practice that is not permitted under campaign finance laws. And it offered a case study on the many ways money flows to City Hall when developers want changes to local planning rules.

In the case of Sea Breeze, politicians received donations from the handymen who fixed Leung's buildings, a landscaper who tended his gardens and a chef who prepared meals in a hotel run by his company. Many of the contributions were reported on the same day, in the same amounts, for the same politician, contribution records show.

One donor, a repairman from El Salvador, was listed as giving $20,300 to an array of politicians between 2008 and 2015 — more than half of it to Hahn. Yet in an interview, the repairman said he could not remember why he gave her so much money.

Another contributor, a construction worker living in North Hills, denied giving donations to Hahn and other elected officials. He and a family member are listed as giving more than $12,000 to politicians who represented, or were campaigning to represent, Harbor Gateway.

Leung and his representatives declined requests from The Times to discuss his campaign contributions in 2016. Approached at the time by reporters at the Department of Building and Safety, Leung said he did not reimburse any donors but refused further comment.

If convicted, Leung faces up to four years and eight months in state prison. At a Friday court appearance, Nixon, Leung's lawyer, argued that his client should be released without bail, describing him as a longtime resident of the area with no criminal record.

Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan declined a request from prosecutors to impose bail, releasing Leung on his own recognizance. However, she said Leung must surrender his passport, stay within Southern California and use only his true name in financial transactions.

An arrest warrant has been issued for David, who faces up to three years in prison if convicted. She could not be reached for comment.

The case remains under investigation, prosecutors said.

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Twitter: @DavidZahniser

Twitter: @AlpertReyes

UPDATES:

4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the charging document, and Leung's court appearance.

This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.

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