Four contractors said Tuesday that they unknowingly violated campaign finance rules but strongly denied being part of a criminal conspiracy to launder contributions to city politicians, as charged by a Los Angeles County grand jury.
Roofing contractor Jerry Hein said he did reimburse workers for contributions they made to city candidates, according to Harland Braun, his attorney.
"He told the D.A. when he was interviewed that he reimbursed his employees, but there was no conspiracy. He didn't know what he did was illegal," Braun said. Prosecutors "are taking something that is a misdemeanor or an infraction and raising it to a felony by charging there is a conspiracy."
Braun's account was echoed by three other contractors interviewed Tuesday. They were among 14 people indicted Monday for reimbursing workers who made political contributions, a misdemeanor, and conspiracy to evade limits on individual contributions, a felony.
Among those indicted was John Archibald, a vice president for millionaire Alan Casden's development firm. Archibald allegedly came up with the scheme to buy influence in City Hall.
As several contractors offered a hint of what their defense will be, Casden's controversial $100-million high-rise project in Westwood met a wave of renewed opposition after the indictments became public.
"There is a cloud over it," said Dennis Zine, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, which ultimately will decide the fate of Palazzo Westwood. "How do we go forward with the project when the D.A. has issued an indictment and there are questions? We need to hold it up and evaluate it before we take any further action."
One neighborhood opponent, Tom Metcalfe, president of the Westwood Homeowners Assn., said it is "absolutely out of the question that it will be built."
Records of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission show that the indicted contractors, their relatives and their firms, as well as Casden employees, contributed a combined $109,000 in 2000 and 2001 to mayoral candidate Kathleen Connell, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and council members Wendy Greuel and Jack Weiss.
Weiss, who represents Westwood, moved quickly to announce his opposition to Casden's project. He had not earlier taken a position, and his shift was influential.
"When a council member signals opposition this early, it can make it very difficult," Councilman Eric Garcetti said.
Councilmen Ed Reyes, who heads the Planning Committee, and Tom LaBonge said they tend to defer to council colleagues on matters involving their districts.
"It is a concern," Reyes said. "If the integrity of the process is being questioned, that has to be looked at."
Casden is seeking permission for 350 apartment units in buildings up to 82 feet tall. Existing zoning would limit Casden to 55 feet and fewer than 250 units.
The project would consist of two five-story buildings at the southwest corner of Weyburn and Tiverton avenues. It also would include 115,000 square feet of stores and restaurants.
Opponents, who have put up lawn signs throughout Westwood with the message, "Jack Weiss Stop Casden," say traffic and parking would suffer.
Casden's proposal has yet to be considered by the city Planning Commission or the council.
Homeowner leaders who had opposed the Casden project as too large said that, until Monday, they believed the development would be approved with minor changes sought by Weiss.
"The tide has dramatically turned in the last two days," said Laura Lake, president of the group Friends of Westwood.
Casden, who has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, plans to press ahead with the project, according to spokeswoman Barbara Casey.
"Definitely, Casden Properties is planning to go ahead with Palazzo Westwood. It's a really exceptional project and there is a great need for multifamily housing in Los Angeles," she said.
Although the City Council rarely opposes the representative of the district in which development is proposed, Casey said Casden is not discouraged by Weiss' opposition.
"I'm sure we'd rather have his vote, but there are 15 council people," she added.
Opponents of the development said they were disappointed that Weiss did not identify flaws in the project, rather than the indictments, as reasons for his opposition.
"I think he wants to separate himself from any affiliation with Alan Casden, because he wants to be reelected," Metcalfe said.
Neither Weiss nor any of the other recipients of the tainted contributions is suspected of any wrongdoing, according to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. Cooley said Casden is a target of the investigation.
Several of the indicted subcontractors said Tuesday that Cooley's office unfairly filed criminal conspiracy charges in a case in which defendants admitted individually violating campaign finance rules. Each defendant contacted denied being reimbursed by the Casden firm, and denied that he or she was coerced or promised favors for contributing to candidates.
Concrete company owner Anthony Boozel told The Times he reimbursed employees, saying his secretary, when granted immunity, told prosecutors that he reimbursed her. But Boozel said he "did not knowingly" violate the law and said no one told him to launder contributions.
Boozel said he had been contacted by the city Ethics Commission about the contributions and said he was led to believe he would be fined. The commission can pursue administrative penalties but not criminal charges against individuals who launder campaign contributions. The panel has authority to impose fines of up to $5,000 per violation or three times the amount improperly contributed.
"My [former] attorney was told by the Ethics Commission that we probably were going to be fined as a way to educate us as to the correct way to make political contributions," Boozel said. He said he was surprised when he arrived at a meeting to find two prosecutors who demanded he testify under oath.
Lazlo Furdek of Cal State Steel also told ethics officials that he reimbursed employee contributions from his company account, but denied there was a conspiracy, said his attorney, Eric Lindholm.
"They weren't told to do it by anybody and they didn't know it was wrong," Lindholm said.
A fourth indicted contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the same story.
"I told the Ethics Commission the exact truth," the subcontractor said. "I went to personal friends of mine and I said, 'If you contribute, I'll give you your money back.' I didn't know it was wrong."
The subcontractor said he was asked to contribute to Connell by Archibald, the Casden executive who was also indicted, during a meeting on a construction project in Casden offices in Beverly Hills.
"He asked, 'Would you donate? Would your partners donate? How about your wife?' " the contractor recalled. "I was in no way coerced."
He and others also said they were not reimbursed by Archibald or Casden for political contributions.
"I took money that I had myself," said the contractor who did not want to be identified. "To be perfectly honest, I wanted to see her [Connell] elected because she was good for development."