City Atty. Vetoes Billboard Suit

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo’s office has concluded there was no reason to bring a case against a major campaign backer, Regency Outdoor Advertising, even though investigators did not interview key witnesses who had publicly accused the firm of vandalism, documents and interviews show.

The witnesses -- a former Regency executive and the firm’s former lawyer -- have said Regency repeatedly vandalized city-owned palm and coral trees that blocked some of its most lucrative billboards at Los Angeles International Airport. Both said recently that they had not been contacted by Delgadillo’s office.

After The Times reported their allegations in October, City Councilman Jack Weiss asked Delgadillo’s office to investigate and file a lawsuit, if warranted.


Last month, Delgadillo’s office concluded its investigation, suggesting in a report to a City Council committee that Regency had no motive to vandalize coral trees next to an elevated extension of Century Boulevard because the trees were not blocking its signs.

The city attorney’s report also quoted scientists as saying that three palm trees Regency allegedly poisoned on the Century Boulevard approach to LAX most likely died of disease.

In fact, a drive past the corals reveals that they do interfere with motorists’ views of the firm’s billboards, as airport landscape supervisor Robert Casarez said last year in an interview.

And one of the scientists consulted in the investigation about the palm trees said Delgadillo’s report does not accurately reflect his opinion.

Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, said even a rudimentary investigation would have included interviews with witnesses and determined that the vandalized trees obstructed Regency’s signs.

“I asked for a full investigation. This is not a full investigation,” he said after he viewed the trees and was told that the witnesses had asserted the city attorney’s office made no attempt to interview them.


Neither Delgadillo, who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, nor his deputies would agree to discuss their probe.

“Our report speaks for itself,” said Jonathan Diamond, Delgadillo’s spokesman.

Brothers Brian and Drake Kennedy, who co-own Regency, have denied any role in vandalizing trees and have said through their lawyer, Roger Jon Diamond, that they feel vindicated by the city attorney’s report. Roger Jon Diamond is not related to Jonathan Diamond in Delgadillo’s office.

Delgadillo’s support from Regency became a major issue in his successful 2001 run for city attorney. Regency, Delgadillo’s second-largest financial backer, donated $125,000 in advertising to promote his candidacy. The donation, made as an independent expenditure rather than through Delgadillo’s campaign committee, was not subject to campaign donation limits imposed under city law.

The free billboard advertising from Regency and another firm was widely credited with boosting public awareness of Delgadillo as he campaigned against a billboard industry adversary, then-City Councilman Mike Feuer.

In the current race for state attorney general, Regency has donated $2,500 to the campaign of Delgadillo’s rival, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

Weiss, who says he wants to run for city attorney when he and Delgadillo are termed out in 2009, asked Delgadillo to investigate Regency after The Times reported allegations last fall that the firm was responsible for poisoning the three palms, which cost the city $10,000 apiece, and radically pruning the city-owned coral trees. Police reports at the time, filed by airport landscapers, estimated damage to the coral trees at $100,000.


Paul E. Fisher, a lawyer who once worked for Regency, said Regency co-owner Drake Kennedy told him that he “had an employee who was taking a chain saw and destroying the coral trees.”

Fisher made the assertion in a memo to a former Regency executive, J. Keith Stephens, that was apparently prepared as the two sought to help each other in litigation against their former employer.

Stephens told The Times in an interview that he knew the identity of the tree cutter because he was present when Brian Kennedy told the man to cut the trees. He identified the man as “Chino” in a deposition in a lawsuit he brought against Regency. Stephens provided a telephone number for “Chino” that is listed for Heliodoro Altamira, owner of Chino’s Tree Service.

In a brief telephone conversation, Altamira said he used to work for Regency. Asked about tree trimming on public property without a permit, he said he left because he “didn’t want to be involved in that stuff.”

Court records show that Altamira was convicted eight years ago of illegally trimming a tree on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood that now blocks a Regency billboard.

According to police reports filed by airport landscapers in 2000 and 2001, unknown people repeatedly and radically cut back the corals, which were planted alongside the elevated extension of Century Boulevard as it enters LAX. Edward Melara, an airport landscape supervisor, told The Times last year that the vandals cut the 35- to 40-foot trees to 5 feet.


In its investigation, Delgadillo’s office omitted what Weiss called the basic step of speaking with either Stephens or Fisher.

“There’s nothing more basic than interviewing witnesses,” Weiss said. “That’s how you develop a case.... That’s also how you determine if there’s no case.”

Delgadillo’s office apparently relied on information from unnamed airport officials in suggesting that Regency had no motive to hack the coral trees. Its report was signed by Richard H. Llewellyn Jr., chief deputy city attorney.

In addition, Deputy City Atty. D. Timothy Daze, who is based at the airport, told a City Council committee: “The coral trees weren’t affecting any signs at all that we could tell.”

Taken by a reporter to see the coral trees and those billboards, Weiss concluded that the obstruction was obvious.

“You can even see this when you’re viewing the trees in their hacked up state,” Weiss said. “One can only imagine what kind of obstruction they were before.”


Weiss said he was baffled by the city attorney’s approach. “My motion said essentially, ‘There appears to be some smoke here. Go check and see if there’s a fire.’ The city attorney’s response was to tell me that there’s no smoke, without having done the basic investigation.”

With regard to the three palm trees along Century Boulevard that were said to have been poisoned, Stephens, the former Regency executive, testified in a deposition in a lawsuit against Regency that Brian and Drake Kennedy each told him Regency was responsible for poisoning the palms.

“Drake ... was really proud of the fact,” Stephens testified.

Fisher, Regency’s former lawyer, wrote in a memo that Drake Kennedy told him, while speaking about those same trees, that poison would be “a proper way to kill a palm tree.”

Stephens testified in his deposition that Regency hired a man named Al Pacelli to poison the trees.

Pacelli denied vandalizing trees for Regency or other billboard firms he works for. “I would be a millionaire,” he said, “if we would do illegal work for automobile dealers, billboard companies, shopping centers -- who want to just get rid of trees along freeways and stuff like that.... But they know damn well we’re not going to do anything illegal.”

Rather than interviewing witnesses, the city attorney’s office focused its probe on whether scientific evidence could corroborate the poisoning claim.


Two of the three palms that died in front of a cluster of Regency signs on Century Boulevard in 2002 and 2003 were tested for the presence of disease, but a laboratory found none.

It did not occur to anyone to test for poison at the time because no allegations of poisoning had yet been made.

The city attorney’s office found that retesting now would be impossible. Samples have been destroyed.

The city attorney’s office, however, quoted experts who had been interviewed by airport officials during the investigation as saying they believed that the trees had probably died of disease or other natural causes that the lab had missed.

One of them, Donald Hodel, a palm tree specialist from University of California Cooperative Extension, told The Times that the city attorney’s office did not accurately represent his view. He said he does not recall saying that and does not believe that disease or soil problems were a more likely cause of death than poisoning.

Hodel had examined the dead and dying trees and had told airport officials at the time that the cause might have been a fatal palm disease, Fusarium wilt, that was known to be in the area and had affected some other palms along Century Boulevard. But a lab test on a palm frond from one of the trees did not find Fusarium.


The city attorney’s office has a long history of dealing with Regency and the palms blocking its signs. Regency sued the city in 2001, claiming the palms reduced its signs’ values. The first two palms died shortly after Regency lost at trial in early 2002.

Regency then appealed but offered to settle the case if the city would allow it to replace some of the palms with smaller trees. But the Airport Commission saw no reason to settle because the city had prevailed in court.

Deputy City Atty. Daze took a total of four Regency settlement offers to the commission, confidential records show.

He also told commissioners that the deputy city attorney who tried the case, Amy Gonzalez, “feels that the proposed settlement by Regency is appropriate.”

Gonzalez, who was on maternity leave at the time and then became assistant general counsel for the San Diego airport, said in an interview last fall that she did not recall being consulted.

Daze declined to comment.

Months after efforts to settle the case failed, a third palm tree died in front of the same cluster of Regency signs. In 2005, the state Court of Appeal weighed in and handed Regency another defeat. Regency appealed again, this time to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to decide the case.