Over eight years, friends, relatives and associates of developer Samuel Leung donated more than $600,000 to Los Angeles elected officials’ election campaigns and office accounts. At the time, Leung was seeking the city’s permission to build a six-story apartment complex on land zoned for industrial use, surrounded by manufacturing, warehouses and other heavy industrial operations in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood.
The city’s planning department rejected Leung’s proposal as inappropriate. The Planning Commission did too. Rezoning the property to allow residential development violated the city’s stated policy of preserving industrial land that could be used for businesses that create good-paying jobs. And yet, a Times investigation shows, Leung got his project approved after people related to or affiliated with him poured money — perhaps illegally — into the coffers of city officials who overruled their staff, their appointees and their own policies. Many of them told The Times that they were of modest means, didn’t remember contributing and had no connection to politics that would explain why or how they’d donated hundreds and even thousands of dollars to those officials.
When critics say the city of Los Angeles’ development process is corrupt, this is a perfect illustration of what they mean. And it’s exactly why proponents of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative were able to gather the thousands of signatures needed to put a draconian measure on the March ballot that would impose a two-year moratorium on major developments.
It’s no secret that developers give heavily to local officials, presumably because they believe the contributions will help them buy their way around land-use rules and greatly increase the value of their projects at the expense of neighboring residents and property owners. Critics say the mayor and City Council are not only complicit in this soft corruption, they enable it by refusing to fix the city’s broken planning and land-use system. The Times investigation gives those critics yet more ammunition.
Reporters David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes meticulously documented how more than 100 campaign contributors with direct or indirect ties to Leung gave $600,000 to certain elected officials, whose support was needed to rewrite zoning rules so Leung’s $72-million apartment complex could be built.
More than $200,000 flowed to various campaign accounts used by former City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district included Harbor Gateway and who wrote a letter of “conditional support” for Leung’s project before she left office. Then the money flowed to three candidates running to replace her on the City Council. Her successor, Councilman Joe Buscaino, received at least $94,700 from Leung-affiliated donors for his campaign and his council office account, which he used this year to help pay for an official trip to Italy.
Buscaino also helped raise money for Mayor Eric Garcetti’s election in 2013, and Leung associates contributed $60,000 to that independent committee. Two years later, Garcetti invoked a rarely used City Charter provision to overrule the decision by his own Planning Commission appointees to reject Leung’s project. That allowed the council to approve the project with 10 votes instead of 12. Buscaino also endorsed the project, and his support was instrumental in getting it approved last year.
Garcetti, Buscaino and other officials who received contributions from Leung’s circle insist there was no quid pro quo. And there’s no proof that the money caused anyone to change his or her position on the project. Nevertheless, it seems clear what Leung and other developers with pending applications believe they’re accomplishing when they shower city politicians with cash.
The Times investigation uncovered questionable contributions from Leung’s circle, including those that may have been made without the supposed donor’s knowledge or with the promise that the donor would be (illegally) reimbursed. The district attorney has rightly promised to investigate; the City Ethics Commission should too.
But the Times investigation is really an indictment of a corrupt City Hall culture that has allowed land-use laws to be negotiable. The mayor and council members dictate what’s appropriate on particular sites in response to appeals from developers, many of whom are influential campaign donors. The city’s elected officials could have reformed the planning system years ago. But they haven’t, because they understand that the case-by-case negotiations over zoning and land-use rules help fund their campaigns, keep them in office and pay for trips to Italy. (Looking at you, Councilman Buscaino.)
Garcetti and Buscaino justified bending the land-use rules for Leung’s project by saying the city needs more housing, which is certainly true. That’s the argument every time a developer wants to ignore the existing zoning, and it’s how elected officials defend making questionable approvals that deviate from their own planning rules. But if they really wanted to generate more housing, elected officials would long ago have enacted meaningful planning and land-use reform that made it easier to build housing in appropriate areas.
Faced with the blunt force of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, Garcetti and his council colleagues are talking about reform. But can they act in the city’s interest rather than their own self-interest?