The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office is reviewing a mass mailing by City Clerk Patrick E. Keller to determine if he violated statutes barring conflicts of interest, Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace Beason said this week.
The mailing also is being reviewed to see if it violated state requirements that organizations putting out political mailings register with the secretary of state and identify themselves on the flyers, Beason said.
Keller, backed by a developers group and a homeowners organization, used official city clerk stationery to mail thousands of letters last week urging property owners to attend the City Council meeting on Monday, when new development standards were being considered.
The proposed building standards--which would impose tougher requirements for height, density, recreational space and landscaping--were forwarded March 19 by the Planning Commission to the City Council.
If the new standards are approved, the letter said, "property values could immediately drop by as much as 35%!"
"It is not too late to stop any of this."
The words "Not printed or mailed at government expense" were printed in small type at the bottom of the letter and on the envelope. But the names of the two groups that Keller said paid almost all the costs of the mailing did not appear.
The deputy district attorney said that state law requires that political mailings of more than 500 copies show the names and addresses of the senders and that organizations sending such information register with the secretary of state's office within 10 days if they spend more than $500.
Keller said that the two groups that paid the expenses, which he estimated at between $1,500 and $2,000, are the Planning Advisory Committee, a developers group, and the Concerned Taxpayers of Hawthorne, a homeowners group.
Neither group is registered with the secretary of state, according to a spokesman for that agency.
Keller said his understanding of the law is that committees are not required to register until they endorse a candidate or urge voters to vote for or against a ballot measure.
Beason said the question of a possible conflict of interest arose in connection with Keller's acknowledged business dealings with Batta Vuicich, one of the city's largest and most politically active developers. Vuicich is chairman of the Planning Advisory Committee.
Keller denied any conflict of interest.
The clerk, who is an insurance agent as well as a part-time official, said he insures about 25 buildings in Hawthorne, including seven or eight owned by Vuicich. He said Vuicich's business is worth about $2,000 a year to him.
"He is a fairly sharp real estate entrepreneur and he has a lot of buildings, and I wish I had all of (his insurance business)," Keller said.
'Able to Say No'
Keller said Vuicich had not attempted to use his economic leverage to induce Keller to write the letter on city clerk letterhead, nor had any other developers. The clerk added that if Vuicich were to try, "I would hope I would always be able to say no. I have always done what I wanted."
Builders have argued that the proposed building standards may kill apartment construction. And the mailing--which had the words "Important Meeting Notice: Can Affect the Value of Your Property" stamped in large red type across the envelope--drew an unusual overflow crowd of more than 200 to council chambers Monday.
Every seat was filled, and the back wall was lined with people standing. Outside the chambers, people pressed against windows for a glimpse of the proceedings. Many residents carried copies of the Keller letter.
Judging by the comments from a parade of speakers, sentiment on the proposed building standards appeared about equally divided: Twenty-three spoke against the proposed standards, while 21 spoke in favor of them.
Jon Sloey, president of the Hawthorne Board of Realtors, said prosperity depends on the availability of housing. "Industry and commerce will look elsewhere if their employees cannot find housing," he said, urging the council not to "kill development."
Avery Burgoon, who lives in the 4000 block of West 122nd Street, said: "I don't believe the council should go along with this plan to devalue our property the way this will do. I don't want my property devalued. I want it just like it is."
John Woods, who lives in the 14100 block of Kornblum Avenue, said the Planning Commission proposals are "what I call the sell-out of the Hawthorne property owner. It is ludicrous to think of these changes without submitting (them) for a vote of the people."
Peter Barker, who lives in the 4400 block of West 136th Street, urged the council to halt the meeting so a larger hall could be found and then chastised them when they would not.
"I think I see a lot of gall here," he said. "I think you are making a terrible error."
Some opponents of the building standards described them as zoning changes--as Keller did in his letter--a point council member Chuck Bookhammer tried to clarify.
"It is a little misleading," Bookhammer said. "No zoning changes. Just building code changes."
Proponents of the development proposals said they are needed to provide better projects and moderate the impact of rapid apartment construction.
"Hawthorne is being choked up with apartments," said Vera Polano, who lives in the 4000 block of West 135th Street. "I am really tired of all the building that is going on."
Ethel Rudawitz, a landlord who has six units in the 13400 block of Kornblum, made an issue of the Keller letter.
"I am here to protest the tactics of fear and intimidation as practiced by Mr. Keller" and backers of his letter, she said, urging the council not to be influenced by "the furor stirred by a few developers."
"In my opinion," she said, "these large apartments do not increase the value of the property. If we do not stop these profiteers, we are developing a slum of gigantic proportions."
The council took no action at the meeting, which was the first part of a public hearing on the proposed building standards. A second session is scheduled for 8 p.m. April 7 in the auditorium of the Hawthorne Memorial Center, 3901 W. El Segundo Blvd.
After several residents told the council that they knew nothing of the proposed changes until they received Keller's letter, the council directed Keller to inform residents of the April 7 meeting. He said Wednesday that he is sending postcards to all property owners.
Asked why he left out tenants, who like property owners have complained of parking problems caused by new construction, Keller replied: "I don't think it affects them as much as owners."
City Treasurer Howard Wohlner, who provided Keller a computerized list of property owners, said that although time is a factor, a mailing could be sent to every resident--"whether it be a property owner, a tenant of a house or the tenant of an apartment house. It could be done. No question."