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Councilman Cleared Way for Koreatown Nightspots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden, a crusader against inner-city liquor businesses after the 1992 riots, has cleared the way for dozens of bars and nightclubs to open in Koreatown, many backed by his campaign contributors or represented by lobbyists with close ties to him.

As a result, Koreatown has become one of the city’s busiest bar zones. The change illustrates how much sway Los Angeles City Council members have over what businesses locate in their districts. Police and many residents blame the transformation in Koreatown for growing crime and social ills in that neighborhood.

Holden has touted some of the bars and nightclubs as generators of economic growth and desirable businesses for the community. One of the city’s largest nightclubs, Le Prive, was able to open near the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in 2000 after Holden assured fellow council members and city regulators that it would be an elegant dining establishment and good for the neighborhood. He sent an aide to testify at a public hearing that the club would be “a family-style restaurant” he would visit with his granddaughter.

Today, the club opens after 9 p.m. for an exclusive set of customers who provide the names of waiters to gain entry. Food is served only with liquor, and the minimum order is a $200 bottle of whiskey. Le Prive’s owners and their supporters contributed $8,000 to Holden’s 1999 reelection campaign.

A Times review found that:

* Many of the liquor-related businesses that Holden has supported were represented by one of his top fund-raisers, lobbyist and zoning consultant King Woods, or by Bill Robinson, a former City Hall aide to the councilman.

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* One of Holden’s deputies accepted $15,000 from a Koreatown nightclub operator. The aide described the money as two interest-free loans, now fully repaid.

* Another Koreatown nightclub owner, who was imprisoned in South Korea in 2000 on unrelated bribery charges, gave Holden a Rolex watch in October 1997. In return, Holden gave the club owner a jeweled brooch. Holden said the swap had nothing to do with city business.

* The same Koreatown club owner donated $10,000 to the unsuccessful Pasadena mayoral campaign of Holden’s son after the senior Holden solicited the contribution in 1999.

Holden said he is not influenced by campaign donations or his relationships with liquor and nightclub interests.

“I don’t compromise,” he said. “If you look at my record, you’ll see people have supported me and I voted against them anyway. From the time I was a [state] senator until now, I’ve treated them all the same.”

Holden, 72, who has been on the City Council since 1987, is in his fourth and final term. Koreatown liquor interests were among the largest donors to Holden’s last two reelection campaigns, contributing roughly 10% of the total he raised. Holden’s 1995 campaign raised $62,800 from liquor business owners and consultants representing them, according to campaign finance records. In the 1999 elections, those interests gave Holden $47,950.

The donations are a testament to the power City Council members wield over zoning. Liquor businesses are not automatically allowed under city zoning codes, and approval for them is often difficult to achieve.

A council member’s opinion usually carries great weight with zoning administrators. And at the City Council, members traditionally defer to a council member on zoning issues affecting his district.

“In the planning process, the power of a councilman ... is almost total,” said former Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, a land-use lawyer who once chaired the council’s planning committee.

*

A New Wave of Drinking Spots in Koreatown

Koreatown, a densely populated area west of downtown, has had its share of bars and nightclubs for decades. But a wave of new late-night drinking spots arrived in the 1990s.

H. Cooke Sunoo, who was the city’s redevelopment manager for the Wilshire Center-Koreatown area from 1993 to 1998, said many retail stores, restaurants and service businesses in the area faltered during the economic slump of the early 1990s. The 1992 riots added calamitous damage. The shuttered stores and restaurants were often replaced by bars, karaoke clubs, pool halls, cafes and other businesses centered on nightlife.

In the last five years alone, more than 40 zoning permits involving alcohol sales have been granted in the Koreatown portion of Holden’s district.

The Western-Wilshire neighborhood around Le Prive, for instance, has about twice as many liquor establishments relative to population as is called for in state guidelines. That area now has the highest crime rate in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Wilshire Division, and is among the most crime-ridden in the city, said Ron Riffel, an LAPD crime analyst.

LAPD Lt. Thomas J. Ward said much of the crime “is jet-fueled by alcohol.” Ward said intoxicated bar patrons are often robbed when leaving drinking spots, and that Koreatown clubs and bars exacerbate the problem by selling hard liquor by the bottle.

White-collar crime is also an issue, according to law enforcement officials who have targeted Korean nightclubs in a tax-evasion and money-laundering investigation.

Among the array of liquor businesses that have opened in the district are karaoke clubs with private rooms for drinking and singing; hostess bars filled with women who accompany customers for drinks and tips; and “booking clubs” like Le Prive, where waiters act as paid matchmakers for young singles.

“That’s Nate Holden’s legacy in Koreatown,” said Charles Kim, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, a community education and civic affairs group. “His legacy is a lot of places getting upgraded from beer and wine to full liquor licenses, and extending their hours from midnight to 2 a.m.”

For years, Holden criticized liquor businesses in the inner city, saying they contributed to the deterioration of neighborhoods, especially in South-Central Los Angeles. Holden lobbied against an Assembly bill in 1994 that would have made it easier to rebuild grocery and liquor stores destroyed in the 1992 riots, arguing that the stores--many of which were in his district--could be magnets for crime.

But he has remained silent as other liquor permits in his district have come up for approval, and has sometimes vocally backed bar owners before the City Council or city regulators. Holden said his positions are based on what he hears from the public and police.

“I don’t do anything without community support and police support, period,” he said.

*

A Boon to Consultants With Ties to Holden

The spread of liquor businesses in Koreatown has been a boon for consultants with close ties to Holden.

A review of all liquor business zoning permit applications in Holden’s district since 1995 shows two consultants, King Woods and Bill Robinson, have represented more than 40% of the approximately five dozen applicants.

Woods, a longtime Holden campaign contributor, and Robinson, a former Holden council staffer, have compiled a striking success rate for those applicants. From 1995 to 2000, city officials approved 93% of applications from their clients, compared with 75% for liquor cases in Holden’s district handled by other consultants.

“I’ve voted against King lots of times,” Holden said, though he declined to cite an example.

In the months leading up to the 1995 election, Woods, Robinson and their clients donated more than $40,000 to Holden’s council campaign out of the $657,000 Holden raised, according to campaign finance records,

Woods, Robinson and their clients contributed $46,550 to Holden’s 1999 campaign, according to public records.

The consultants, their clients and others involved in Koreatown projects represented by Woods and Robinson also contributed $23,750 to the unsuccessful 1999 Pasadena mayoral campaign of Holden’s son, Chris, a Pasadena city councilman.

Woods said that there was no link between campaign contributions and his success with Koreatown liquor permits. “Councilman Holden and I are not really that close,” Woods said.

His clients’ applications are usually approved, he said, because he is meticulous in ensuring that they meet legal requirements.

“I tell them if they’re going to do a project it has to be done right,” said Woods, a former city planning department staffer.

Robinson, Holden’s former deputy, also said his success is due to the quality of his applicants’ projects. “I don’t do bad projects. I just do restaurants,” he said.

Kee Whan Ha, a developer and president of the Korean Federation of Los Angeles, said Koreatown businesspeople hire Woods “because most of his jobs got finished. He has a good rate of success, probably because he knows Holden and other council members.”

Holden insisted that projects handled by Woods or Robinson get no special consideration from him. “I don’t have any connection to projects, whether they represent them or not,” he said.

The councilman said he does not refer clients to the consultants.

*

Changing Stance on Permit for Le Prive

The importance of Holden’s position on individual permits is clearly illustrated in the Le Prive case, which took nearly three years to wind through the city’s process.

Zoo Entertainment, Le Prive’s parent company, applied for a permit to open the club in September 1997.

City officials and neighborhood residents were wary of another late-night drinking spot in the area. Other nightclub owners fought the project because they feared new competition.

Linda Kim, owner of the now-defunct rival nightclub Flamingo, immediately began to lobby against Le Prive’s application. (In 2000, Kim served one month of a one-year jail sentence in South Korea for bribing Korean Defense Ministry officials. She did so to secure a $216-million contract for an American defense contractor.)

Kim, a longtime donor to Holden’s campaigns, said she met with the councilman, discussed Le Prive with him and was encouraged by what he said. “I thought he was supporting us,” she said.

In October 1997, she had given Holden an $11,900 Rolex watch. Holden said the watch was not a gift, but rather part of an exchange of valuables between him and Kim. In return for the watch, he said, he gave her a diamond brooch. He refused to discuss the value of the brooch.

City ethics laws forbid council members from taking gifts worth more than $100 from individuals who do business with the city, are a party to a license or permit matter, or have lobbied on a legislative or administrative action.

Le Prive’s operating permit was approved by a zoning administrator in January 1998, but was immediately appealed by other nightclub owners.

Acknowledging their concerns, the city Board of Zoning Appeals in March 1998 limited Le Prive’s dance floor to 300 square feet. The restriction was meant to ensure that the club would be a restaurant with some room for dancing, not a full-blown nightclub.

Holden took his first public stand on the case at that zoning board meeting, according to city records. An aide to the councilman testified that Holden wanted dancing to be carefully controlled, because “the councilman did not want the restaurants of Koreatown to turn into discos.”

Holden followed up with an April 1998 City Council motion to prohibit dancing altogether in the proposed establishment. Le Prive’s owner agreed to dispense with dancing, and in June 1998 the council approved a permit for the club.

In February 1999, with the club still not open, Le Prive’s backers again applied for permission to allow dancing.

That same month, Linda Kim said, Holden asked her to give money to his son Chris’ Pasadena mayoral campaign. “He called my house and asked for $5,000 for his son,” said Kim.

Around that same time, Kim said, she asked Holden to oppose Le Prive’s latest permit application, and Holden said vaguely that he would not allow another discotheque in Koreatown. “He gave us hope,” she said.

Records show that Kim donated $5,000 to Chris Holden’s campaign in February 1999.

The nightclub owner, who lives in Saugus, 30 miles from Pasadena, said Holden called her in March 1999 to ask for more money for his son’s campaign.

Records show a $4,900 loan to Chris Holden from Kim’s sister, Kui Ja Kim, in March 1999. Linda Kim said that is the second contribution requested by Nate Holden, and is not a loan, despite what records show.

Linda Kim said that though Holden did not promise anything for the money, she gave the contributions because she believed Holden would oppose Le Prive.

Kui Ja Kim, Linda Kim’s sister, did not respond to messages left at her workplace.

Holden declined to discuss Kim’s comments. “I don’t want to get into that or anything with Linda Kim.” He said the campaigns were “playing by the rules.”

Chris Holden said, “We just got the check and our understanding was that it was a loan.” He said the money has not been repaid.

Campaign finance reports show that in 1998 and 1999 Nate Holden also received $8,000 in campaign contributions from Le Prive’s owners, their family members, employees and consultants on the project.

Several parties tied to Le Prive also contributed to Chris Holden’s Pasadena campaign. Howard Kea, the club’s owner, donated $2,000. Christopher Pak, Le Prive’s architect, and his firm gave $7,000. (The donors said the contributions to both Holdens were not linked to Le Prive’s case before the Los Angeles City Council.)

The younger Holden was defeated in the April 1999 mayoral election, losing to Bill Bogaard.

In all, Le Prive’s owners, supporters and contractors contributed $17,000 to the two Holdens’ campaigns.

After the Pasadena mayoral election, the elder Holden changed his views on Le Prive. In May 1999, a zoning administrator approved the club’s second application for dancing, permitting a dance floor of 900 square feet--three times the limit earlier imposed by the city.

Competing nightclubs appealed that decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals. At a hearing in August of that year, a Holden aide testified in support of Le Prive. The board denied the appeal and approved the 900-square-foot dance floor.

Earlier, while Le Prive’s status was before city officials, Holden deputy Steve Kim had received $5,000 from Johnny Koo, a nightclub owner later convicted of money laundering in an unrelated case.

*

Aide Takes $5,000 From Nightclub Owner

Koo said he paid Kim to block Le Prive’s zoning approval. The council aide acknowledged taking the $5,000 in 1998, but said the money was an interest-free loan. Kim said he could not remember why he borrowed the money, but said it might have been for home furniture. Kim said the loan was not related to Le Prive.

As a council aide, Kim said, it was “very naive” of him to borrow money from a businessman with interests in his district. He added: “In the Korean culture it’s not uncommon for people to borrow money from each other.”

It was not their first financial deal: Both said that in 1997, the aide received a $10,000 interest-free loan from the club owner. The loan, they said, was intended to help Kim buy a house. Both agree that it was repaid before the Le Prive controversy heated up.

When Holden reversed himself in 1999 and decided to support Le Prive, Koo said, he complained to a fellow nightclub owner, who spoke to Holden and told the councilman about Koo’s payment to Kim and his anger at Holden’s change of stance.

In late 1999, Kim said, he met with Koo at a Koreatown sauna and told Koo he wanted to repay the $5,000.

Koo refused. “I told him I don’t need the money, I need you to stop Le Prive,” the club owner said.

Holden said he chastised Kim for borrowing money from Koo, but took no other action.

In February 2000, Kim gave Koo a $5,000 cashier’s check to settle the loan.

Detectives from the LAPD’s financial crimes and fraud unit have interviewed Kim about his relationship with Koo. Holden said, “I called for the investigation. It’s been resolved.” Detectives refused to comment.

Le Prive’s case reached the council for the last time in January 2000. Opponents had appealed the zoning board decision to approve dancing at the club. Holden passionately sided with Le Prive.

“Those who have come here,” he said, “have to understand a person has a right to start a business as long as he complies with the law.”

Le Prive’s dance permit cleared the council by one vote.


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