DA's office will review campaign contributions from donors with ties to Sea Breeze developer

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office said Monday that it would review a series of campaign contributions made by donors with ties to a developer who secured approval for a controversial $72-million apartment complex.

On Sunday, a Times investigation showed that more than 100 donors who were directly or indirectly connected to developer Samuel Leung had made donations totaling more than $600,000 to L.A.-area politicians while his 352-unit Sea Breeze project was being reviewed.

Of those who donated, 11 denied making contributions or said they didn’t remember doing so, and one told The Times she had been reimbursed for at least one donation. The responses raise questions about whether someone else was the source of the money — a practice that is not permitted under campaign finance laws.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, said prosecutors were “aware of the allegations” surrounding the Sea Breeze project, located in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood, and would review them.

A review by the district attorney’s office is the first step in the process of determining whether an investigation is warranted. 

It remains unclear if the city Ethics Commission plans to launch a separate probe. An official there said his agency is not allowed, under city law, to confirm or deny whether any investigation is taking place. The commission is charged with looking into alleged violations of campaign contribution laws in city campaigns only.

A spokesman with the Fair Political Practices Commission, which investigates campaign finance law violations at the state and local levels, would not comment on whether his agency is looking at the donations linked to the Sea Breeze developer.

"All I can say is that we are aware of it," said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga, referring to The Times’ story on the donations.

Several members of the Los Angeles City Council received donations as they were considering the Sea Breeze complex. U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles), who represented Harbor Gateway during her days on the council, received at least $203,500 in contributions and wrote a letter favorable to the project.

Campaign finance experts said the statements to The Times from donors, some of them low-income workers with ties to Leung’s business interests, suggest donations may have been made by someone else in an effort to bypass campaign contribution limits.

Leung said he did not reimburse any donor and has declined repeated requests for further comment from The Times. Emails and phone calls made to a representative for Leung on Monday were not returned.

Sea Breeze was initially opposed by staffers in the Department of City Planning and rejected by the Planning Commission. But both Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council reversed the commission’s decision.

In 2013, a campaign committee that supported Garcetti's mayoral bid, but was not controlled by him, received $60,000 from companies and individuals with direct or indirect ties to Leung.

Politicians and neighborhood activists have called for a wide range of investigations since The Times’ story was published.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, a backer of Sea Breeze who received $94,700 in contributions from donors connected to Leung, said the city’s Ethics Commission should check to see if any donors were reimbursed. Buscaino has also promised to return any campaign funds found to be improper by investigators.

Councilman Gil Cedillo, who accepted at least $9,000 from donors tied to Leung, also voiced support for an outside review. He serves on the council committee that vetted the Sea Breeze project — and overturned the Planning Commission’s decision.

“I am just as concerned as my colleagues and welcome an Ethics Commission investigation,” he said in a statement. "If after an investigation the funds are in fact found to be questionable, I will return all donations immediately.”

Former Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano, who is running against Hahn in the Nov. 8 election for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, has also called for local and federal prosecutors to investigate the donations. On Monday, Napolitano also asked for the county to form its own ethics commission to review similar situations.

Bob Stern, the former president of the California Center for Governmental Studies and a coauthor of the state Political Reform Act, said any criminal investigation would likely focus on anyone suspected of reimbursing donors, rather than the politicians who received contributions. 

If the donations were found to have come from someone other than the listed donors, prosecutors could bring charges of campaign money laundering as well as violations of campaign contribution limits.

“It’s unlikely that the politicians will be charged unless they were involved in the actual scheme, but they probably will have to turn over the money to the city or the state if it was found that the money was illegally received,” he said. “Most of the time the politicians don’t know where the money is coming from, unless they are told.”

The pattern of donations struck Stern as odd.

“Many of these people don’t sound like they could afford to make these contributions,” he said.

Times staff writers Alice Walton and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

james.queally@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser  @JamesQueallyLAT

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UPDATES:

5:24 p.m.: This article was updated with addtional reaction and details.

This article was originally published at 4:05 p.m.

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