A Titillating Tale of City Hall Life
A city commissioner allegedly pays for a deputy mayor to get massages, then browbeats him into backing a good deal for a company that is secretly paying the commissioner bribes.
The deputy has his own hopes. Among them: The deal could mean that the Los Angeles Zoo gets an exhibit of golden monkeys from China.
When James K. Hahn was mayor of Los Angeles, the conventional wisdom was that his administration was as colorless as he was. But more than 1,000 pages of transcripts from the Los Angeles County Grand Jury unsealed last week contain allegations that suggest a soap operatic flavor, albeit with serious consequences for the city.
The grand jury’s target was the commissioner, Leland Wong, who was indicted in August on bribery and other corruption charges stemming in part from the way he allegedly manipulated the deputy mayor for his own financial gain. Wong says he is not guilty.
But the panel focused on the misadventures of the inexperienced deputy, Troy Edwards, a political fundraiser designated by Hahn to run three billion-dollar agencies: the Department of Water and Power and the departments that oversee the Port of Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport.
Much of the testimony concerned efforts in 2002 and 2003 by Wong and Edwards to hammer out a deal between the city and the Evergreen Group, the Taiwan-based conglomerate that operates one of the world’s largest shipping firms and an airline, with units at L.A.'s port and the airport.
And the transcripts offer some unusually candid perspectives on life behind the scenes at City Hall.
Testimony began with former Deputy Mayor Edwards taking the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination. He was granted immunity from prosecution and given a choice: Talk or go to jail for contempt of court.
Out came a tale that has titillated and appalled even those who have been at City Hall long enough to remember the time, nine years ago, that a councilman on cocaine was caught with a big stash of porn.
Edwards was a government neophyte in his mid-30s when Hahn offered him his powerful post. His main qualification seemed to be that he had been good at raising large amounts of cash for the mayor’s political campaign.
Edwards testified that he came to rely on Wong, who had a long track record as a prolific fundraiser and was a member of an elite group that secured appointments to powerful city commissions, no matter who was mayor.
In Los Angeles’ peculiar form of government, part-time, volunteer commissioners direct activities of city departments and decide who gets multimillion-dollar contracts. Wong had most recently been a port commissioner under Mayor Richard Riordan. Hahn named him to the Airport Commission.
Apparently unknown to Hahn and Edwards, Wong was allegedly on the payroll of Evergreen, which was reportedly depositing $5,000 a month in his Hong Kong bank account in return for his help in negotiating a better lease for its huge container operation at the port.
Also in play was the mayor’s desire to placate residents near LAX upset by plans to enlarge it.
The mayor’s office wanted some air carriers to shift operations to city-owned but underused Ontario International Airport. Wong wrote Evergreen officials: Would they be so kind as to move? It might help their position at the port.
Wong was a man who understood nuance. He lived in San Marino with his wife and children but maintained a condo in Chinatown. By law, a city commissioner needs a city address.
In dealing with Edwards, he reportedly used carrots and sticks.
Edwards was involved in the negotiations with Evergreen, at one point jetting to Taipei himself to speak with shipping-line executives. When negotiations faltered, Edwards testified, Wong e-mailed blunt messages such as, “Your reputation sucks.”
At other times, Edwards testified, Wong treated him to premier seats at Lakers games and to massages at the Westin Bonaventure, where he said masseuses sometimes masturbated him.
Wong billed these gestures to an unlikely source, the giant HMO Kaiser Permanente, where his day job as director of government affairs gave him an expense account to make nice to politicians who would take the HMO’s business interests to heart, Kaiser officials testified.
Wong, Edwards and Hahn hoped to conclude a round of negotiations with Evergreen with a signing ceremony during Hahn’s 2002 trade mission to Asia. The press had already been told to expect an event when Edwards got word that talks were in trouble.
He testified that he did not want the mayor to be embarrassed.
Then-port Director Larry Keller testified that Edwards approached him in Tokyo and told him to drop everything and get to Taipei. “There is a plane leaving in an hour, and you’re going to be on it,” Keller said Edwards told him. " ... I don’t want you to come back without a deal.”
Keller went and, after two days of round-the-clock talks, signed a tentative deal for Evergreen that, by his own estimate, would have cost the city millions of dollars in reduced lease payments at the port.
That deal paved the way for the mayor to take the spotlight a few days later, when Evergreen signed a nonbinding letter of intent to move its air operations to Ontario, which it still hasn’t done.
The transcripts also touch on another long-running City Hall saga that involved Evergreen, this one concerning mammals with blue faces believed to have magical properties. Unable to persuade the Chinese government to lend Los Angeles a panda, Hahn declared himself delighted to settle for golden monkeys.
But he needed millions of dollars to pay for special cages at the zoo.
Edwards testified that Wong told him at one point that Evergreen was interested in chipping in.
Testifying under his own grant of immunity, the Evergreen official who said he was quietly paying Wong told grand jurors that Edwards had approached him.
But he said Evergreen couldn’t give money to the zoo because it might be a conflict of interest.
Four years later, the monkeys are still in China.