Alleged Slumlords Donated to Delgadillo
Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo accepted thousands of dollars in political contributions from two landlords accused of operating apartments with slum conditions after he settled a lawsuit against them for a third of the amount the city initially sought.
Lance Robbins, called “one of Los Angeles’ most notorious landlords” in the lawsuit, and Stanley Treitel have an extensive history of involvement with properties cited for violations. Inspections of their buildings have found blocked emergency exits, cockroach infestations and faulty wiring on the premises, according to city records.
In filing the lawsuit, city officials accused the two men and their associates of failing to pay $3 million in delinquent utility bills and penalties. Delgadillo agreed in 2002 to settle the suit, allowing them to pay $1 million. Prosecutors said they concluded that the city would have a difficult time proving the defendants owed much more.
The settlement required the partners to maintain their rental properties or face additional court sanctions, but Delgadillo’s office was slow to act when the landlords were accused of ignoring the agreement. Not until a tenant-rights organization drafted a court motion in 2003 did his office step in, activists said.
Since the settlement, Delgadillo has accepted $15,600 from Robbins and Treitel, their businesses, relatives and associates to pay for his campaigns and political expenses, city records show. The contributions include a $5,600 check in April to Delgadillo’s campaign for state attorney general.
Delgadillo said he was not aware that Robbins and Treitel were donors and said, in any case, he does not take contributions into account in his prosecutorial decisions. “If one does not have the strength of character to go against contributors, one should not be in office,” he said.
Officials with city and state ethics agencies, and the state bar, said there were no regulations prohibiting prosecutors from accepting campaign contributions from those they prosecute criminally or civilly.
But Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles watchdog group, said, “Prosecutors should not be taking campaign contributions from people they are prosecuting. Just in terms of appearance, it smells to high heaven.”
Robbins, an attorney, said that the settlement was justified because he thought the city would have lost the case and that former City Atty. James K. Hahn filed the lawsuit in 2001 to promote his own campaign for mayor.
He defended his support for Delgadillo, saying he was a better city attorney than Hahn. “Rocky is one of the fairest guys I’ve ever met,” he said.
Treitel said Delgadillo has done no favors for them: “I don’t think he has treated us any differently.”
Delgadillo’s ties to the two partners worry advocates of fair housing who say the city attorney is failing to aggressively pursue slumlords, in part because he is too cozy, politically, with some.
“The main problem with the city attorney’s office is they are not treating slumlords like the criminals they are,” said Darla Fjeld, executive director of the tenant-rights group Coalition L.A. “They don’t prosecute them. They reach settlements. In some cases there are fines, but the landlords pay them as just the cost of doing business.”
Court fines won by Delgadillo’s office declined from $210,000 his first year to $188,800 in the fiscal year that ended in June, a six-year low. On average, the city attorney has won less each fiscal year than his predecessor did in his final two years in office.
In fiscal 2003-04, though, Delgadillo set the high mark for the last six years -- $324,200 -- winning convictions in two high-profile cases, including one in which the owner of two MacArthur Park apartment buildings agreed to pay a record $65,000 in fines.
Delgadillo has also rejected more referrals from the city Housing Department. In his first year he declined to pursue lawsuits in 30 cases. In the most recent fiscal year, he declined to file 60.
And the number of landlords sent to jail or house arrest dropped from 12 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2003 to two in the last fiscal year.
Delgadillo said he does not have the staff he needs to handle all of the slum cases, saying that Hahn and the City Council turned him down when he asked to increase the number of attorneys on criminal housing cases from six to 10.
“We do believe our aggressive prosecution has resulted in some very positive benefits for tenants in Los Angeles,” he added. “I would be the first to stand up and say it’s not nearly enough.”
He said he is filing a higher percentage of cases even as his office has received fewer referrals from the Housing Department. And he said he has no control over whether landlords are jailed.
“It’s up to the judges,” he said, citing a case in which his office asked four times for a landlord to be jailed but could not convince the judge.
Robbins, who lives in Playa del Rey, and Treitel, who lives in Beverly Hills, began working together 12 years ago when they agreed to be partners on a building renovation project.
Treitel, who has long been active in L.A. politics, runs government-sponsored job training and senior housing programs.
Between 1996 and 2000, three apartment buildings in which Treitel had an interest were found to have “severe” health and safety violations by the city’s Slum Housing Task Force, including a building on 7th Street where tenants complained of water leaks, mold and falling plaster.
The task force is the city’s slum housing enforcement body for the worst cases.
Robbins bought his first apartment building in Palms, in 1978. He said he specialized in renovating buildings that others would not touch because they were in such poor condition. “I bet on L.A. when everyone else was running for the door,” he said.
Between 1984 and 2000, the city attorney’s office filed 54 criminal and civil charges against Robbins for 17 buildings that allegedly had serious health and safety violations -- the most actions against any landlord in the 25-year history of the Slum Housing Task Force.
Robbins paid $41,204 in fines in 1995 -- one of the largest penalties ever won by the task force.
In 2001, then-City Atty. Hahn joined a lawsuit filed by Bet Tzedek Legal Services against Robbins and Treitel. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a tenant-rights group called Inquilinos Unidos, sought to enjoin Robbins “from continuing a pervasive pattern of fraud and tenant abuse that for several years has allowed him to maintain his apartment buildings in decrepit condition.”
Hahn said the city was seeking $3 million in delinquent water and power bills for properties controlled by Robbins, Treitel and associates, as well as penalties and a far-reaching injunction to protect their tenants.
Delgadillo inherited the lawsuit when he took over from Hahn as city attorney July 1, 2001.
Two months before he took office, Delgadillo accepted a $1,000 contribution from Brick Investment Corp., which was named in the city lawsuit and is controlled by Robbins and Treitel, according to the city.
Once in office, rather than take the lawsuit to trial, Delgadillo approved a plan to negotiate a settlement. In the deal reached in April 2002, Robbins and Treitel agreed to pay $1 million -- one-third of the delinquent bills -- and $200,000 to cover part of the legal costs for Inquilinos Unidos.
“We thought that was a significant settlement. I thought it was a good result for the city,” Delgadillo said, adding that the settlement was supported by the Department of Water and Power.
The city attorney’s office decided it probably would not win more than $1.2 million for delinquent bills in court because some of the bills were old and others were difficult to tie to Robbins because of the complex corporate structures that control the buildings, said a city attorney who worked on the case.
As part of the settlement, Robbins, who had denied owning any of the properties, listed 26 sites that he agreed he was responsible for keeping up and promised to disclose any new ones he acquired. Robbins and Treitel agreed to “maintain the property in accordance with all laws” and correct problems “within a reasonable time.”
But Bet Tzedek later charged that the two men were failing to live up the settlement and drafted a motion in August 2003 to enforce it, alleging that Robbins had “extensively and repeatedly violated the agreement.”
The city attorney’s office joined the motion.
Elissa Barrett, a Bet Tzedek lawyer, said she was puzzled that Delgadillo’s office did not act first. “Bet Tzedek independently moved to enforce the settlement agreement. The city did not. Why? I do not know,” she said.
Initially, Robbins denied acquiring any new property, but he eventually admitted that he was responsible for the operation of eight new properties.
Bet Tzedek and the city attorney’s office, alleging 36 violations, asked a Superior Court judge to order $345,000 in penalties and $170,000 in attorney fees.
The enforcement motion by Bet Tzedek and the city attorney characterized the settlement as a “dramatic compromise” but conceded that the suit had failed to protect tenants. It noted that the city was entitled to triple damages, for a total of $3 million, but did not seek them.
The motion alleged that Robbins “is completely ignoring the commitment he made to the city and Inquilinos Unidos and is laughing at his ability to get away with empty promises and impunity.”
In September 2003, a judge approved $52,500 in fines.
Less than two months later, on Nov. 3, Treitel contributed $250 to Delgadillo’s reelection campaign committee.
Between that Dec. 11 and Dec. 29, Delgadillo’s political committees got $1,000 each from Robbins, his wife, his son, Treitel, Robbins business partner Frank Gamwell and his wife, and $250 from Treitel’s wife.
Gamwell, whose partnership with Robbins involves buildings that are not in violation of city housing laws, recalled that he accepted an invitation from Robbins to attend a fundraiser for Delgadillo at Dodger Stadium.
“Lance hasn’t said a lot about why he supports Rocky. I’ve heard him say Rocky’s a good guy,” Gamwell said.
In May 2004, a Treitel-controlled firm -- 7th Street Associates Inc. -- donated $1,000 to Delgadillo’s reelection campaign and Treitel gave $250 to Delgadillo’s officeholder account.
That was followed in July 2004 by a $1,000 contribution to Delgadillo’s officeholder account from Brick Investment Corp.
Earlier this year, Bet Tzedek complained to the city attorney’s office about substandard conditions at three buildings tied to Robbins, including a 38-unit apartment building at 974 S. Gramercy Place in Koreatown.
The brick structure was built in 1928 and looks its age. It has been cited repeatedly in the last decade for dozens of alleged building code violations.
Tenants say the building has been plagued by power outages, backed-up plumbing, holes in the walls and an elevator that works only sporadically.
“It’s no good,” said Sonny Reece, who has lived there for eight years. “They need to do a lot more.”
Reece stood recently in the building’s hallway. The staircase was cracked and had loose floorboards. Paint was flaking from doors and walls. An emergency exit at the end of the hall stood open to the elements.
Under the settlement agreement, Delgadillo’s office could have acted on the latest complaint from Bet Tzedek by going back to court to seek more sanctions.
Instead, a representative of the city attorney’s office passed the complaint to Housing Department inspectors on Feb. 17 and did not follow up.
Senior Housing Inspector Lee Smith said the complaint form did not identify the referral as coming from the city attorney’s office. He also said no one from that office ever called to fast-track the inspection.
On March 10, Robbins and Treitel chipped in $1,250 to help Delgadillo pay his legal costs after the city Ethics Commission fined him $6,400 for failing to properly disclose meals and trips charged to his political officeholder account.
The settlement agreement lapsed April 24. Because of the delay, the city would have to start a new enforcement proceeding to seek additional fines.
Delgadillo said his office depends on the Housing Department to expeditiously handle complaints, conduct inspections and refer them to his office if prosecution is warranted.
Five days after the settlement agreement expired, Brick Investment Corp., a partner in the Gramercy Place building, contributed $5,600 to Californians for Rocky to support his effort to become state attorney general.
Treitel denied that the donation had anything to do with how Delgadillo and his office handled the cases involving his properties.
“I’ve known Rocky for years. I think Rocky will bring a fresh look to the attorney general’s office, and that’s what we need,” Treitel said.
The Housing Department did not act on the complaint until June 2, after The Times inquired about the property.
Smith’s field report from that day says his spot inspection “revealed that the building is in disrepair.”
A full inspection on July 15 found 286 problems, including a malfunctioning elevator, cockroach infestations, broken electrical outlets, inoperable smoke detectors, leaking windows, peeling paint, mildew and unapproved wiring.
A follow-up inspection Sept. 27 found that many of the problems had not been fixed.
Smith has given Robbins and Treitel until Thursday to bring the building into compliance.
Robbins and Treitel said their work crews have made the repairs and they were confident that the city inspector would clear the building.
Still, tenants are disappointed that the city attorney has not done more to force the landlords to obey the city’s laws.
Anna Battig, who has lived in the building for two years, complained: “They are just maintaining it as it is.”
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Contributions to Delgadillo
Rocky Delgadillo has accepted $16,600 in contributions to his political campaigns, officeholder account and legal defense fund from controversial apartment operators Lance Robbins and Stanley Treitel and from two of their related businesses, Robbins’ business partner Frank Gamwell and relatives of the three men.
*--* Donor Amount Account Date Brick Investment $1,000 DelgadilloCity Aty 5/4/01 Corp. Stanley Treitel $250 Officeholder 7/17/03 account Stanley Treitel $250Re-elect Rocky 11/3/03 Lance Robbins $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 12/11/03 Stanley Treitel $750 Re-elect Rocky 12/12/03 Frank Gamwell $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 12/12/03 Rachel Bank $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 12/12/03 (Robbins’ wife) Barbara Treitel $250 Re-elect Rocky 12/12/03 (Treitel’s wife) Zachary Daniel $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 12/15/03 Robbins (Robbins’ son) Valerie A. Gray $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 12/29/03 (Gamwell’s wife) 7th Street $1,000 Re-elect Rocky 5/4/04 Associates Stanley Treitel $250 Officeholder 5/6/04 account Brick Investment $1,000 Officeholder 7/19/04 account Stanley Treitel $750 Legal defense fund 3/10/05 Lance Robbins $500 Legal defense fund 3/10/05 Brick Investment $5,600 Californians for 4/29/05 Rocky
Source: Los Angeles City Ethics Commission