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‘Worst’ Slumlord, City Seek to Settle Dispute : Talks Aim to End Costly 4-Year Battle Over Conditions at Apartment Building

Times Staff Writer

A property owner often described by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office as the “worst” slumlord in Los Angeles has entered into settlement talks with the city in an attempt to end a four-year dispute that has grown into the most complex and costly slum prosecution in city history, attorneys for both sides said Friday.

The accused slumlord, Surya Gupta of Hollywood, was scheduled to stand trial Tuesday on charges of criminal contempt of court for failing to make court-ordered repairs on his deteriorating six-story apartment building at 346 N. Vermont Ave.

“We are extremely close to settling this case,” Deputy City Atty. John Phillips, who is prosecuting Gupta on a variety of fire, health and building code violations, said after a meeting Friday with Gupta’s attorneys.

“I think everybody wants to settle so we’re really making some progress,” agreed Michelle Mulvey, an attorney representing Gupta.

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Offer to Buy Building

What moved the case toward settlement Friday was an offer by one of Gupta’s attorneys, Harvey G. Cooper, to buy the building. Cooper declined to discuss details of the offer Friday.

The offer, a copy of which was given to The Times, indicates that Cooper’s real estate investment company, the Jarvey Corp., wants to buy the building for $2.5 million. It would seek loans from government agencies to help bring the building up to code and make repairs, if possible, without evicting the 50 families remaining in the building.

Although Phillips declined to discuss details of the talks, he added that such a sale would not let Gupta escape penalty. “Any settlement package would include civil penalties, restitution to the investigative agencies and relocation payments to the tenants if they have to vacate,” he said.

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He said the city decided to try to settle the 4-year-old case for the good of the tenants, who are now living in the building without hot water, elevator service or a manager.

Rent Strike

When Gupta declined to complete court-ordered repairs last year, the tenants launched a rent strike that is now entering its second year. The tenants, mostly poor Latin American immigrants, are paying their own utility bills. Gupta estimates the strike has cost him $150,000 in rent.

Both Phillips and an attorney for the tenants expressed some concern Friday over the fact that the proposed buyer is a Gupta associate. Gupta has been accused in court of using “sham” real estate transactions to disguise control of his properties in an attempt to avoid making needed repairs and to circumvent court orders that now prevent him from selling the Vermont property without bringing it up to code.

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Gary Blasi, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation who is representing the tenants, said he will not “prejudge” the offer without further study.

“But I am very suspicious of any offer from anyone other than a well-known entity because Gupta could be behind it,” he said. “Using other people to hide his ownership is one of the techniques Gupta employs.”

Legal Owner

The legal owner of the Vermont building is a trust named after a young niece of Gupta’s believed to live in India. Gupta, who set up the trust, recently filed court documents saying that another India-based family trust had an interest in the property and is going to foreclose. Such a foreclosure could presumably free the property for sale as is.

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Gupta has countered the city’s prosecution by filing several countersuits, including an inverse condemnation suit that claims he has been deprived of the free use of his property. On Friday, he also sought a court order that would have required the city to condemn the building as unsafe. That motion was turned down by Superior Court Judge Robert Fainer.

“The city is forcing Mr. Gupta to remain in a business he doesn’t want to be in,” attorney Mulvey said. “He doesn’t want to collect rents. He wants to close the building and go out of business.”

Cooper, whose office is down the hall from Gupta’s in Hollywood, became the object of another controversy recently in which he agreed to handle legal cases that Gupta solicited from survivors of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. Gupta, a native of India, said in an interview that he had solicited powers of attorney for some 70,000 such survivors.

He said he would receive no financial gain from the cases, and had turned some of them over to Cooper.

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