Affair, NBC project cross paths
The extramarital affair between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a newscaster for Telemundo has created a new set of complications for the broadcaster’s corporate parent, NBC Universal -- and possibly the mayor himself.
Even as its Spanish-language subsidiary is poised to decide the future of Mirthala Salinas, the now-suspended reporter who embarked on a romantic relationship with Villaraigosa while she reported on him, NBC Universal is proceeding with a massive $3-billion development plan that city officials must ultimately approve.
Although Telemundo executives hold the key to the career of Salinas, now the subject of an internal investigation into whether she compromised the company’s journalistic mission, Villaraigosa holds his own considerable power over NBC Universal. The entertainment conglomerate will very likely need Villaraigosa’s help to navigate the city’s approval process as it spends the next year pushing its Universal City Vision Plan, a concept the mayor embraced seven months ago.
The first public discussion of the Universal City Vision Plan, a series of projects that would bring 2,900 new homes and 1.6 million square feet of new commercial space, will be held Wednesday, when residents will be asked to describe the environmental issues they want reviewed. But neighbors who live near Universal City have begun arguing that the mayor’s relationship with Salinas raises new questions about his ties to the media company -- and whether he has his own conflict of interest.
“The only one who knows whether there is a conflict is the mayor, and if there is, the mayor needs to acknowledge it and recuse himself,” said Richard Bogy, a Toluca Lake resident who is on a panel reviewing part of Universal City’s development plans.
Terry Davis, president of the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council, suggested that Villaraigosa ask the city’s Ethics Commission to determine whether the mayor has any conflict of interest regarding the development plan. “We’re talking a huge project, a 20-year project that will irreparably affect a community, and we need to know that it is all above board,” she said.
Telemundo could end its review of Salinas by allowing her to keep her job as an anchor, by reassigning her to another program or affiliate, or even by letting her leave with a substantial severance package. Any of those decisions could be greeted positively or negatively by Villaraigosa, who has been publicly promoting NBC Universal’s project for seven months.
Villaraigosa’s aides would not say if the mayor will handle the Universal City project any differently in the coming months, saying they do not comment on hypothetical situations. But the mayor himself said Wednesday that he sees nothing awkward about the overlapping relationships involving his girlfriend, her bosses and the parent company seeking approval for a huge development project.
“I think that they have to act in accordance with their corporate rules and regulations, and I have to act in a way that is separate and apart from all that,” the mayor said at a ribbon-cutting for a new restaurant at Universal CityWalk.
Universal Studios, the NBC Universal unit pushing the development plan, had a sharper response. “These are completely unrelated issues, and obviously one has no bearing on the other,” said Cindy Gardner, a spokeswoman, in a statement.
Salinas has been on paid leave since July 5, when Telemundo announced that it would conduct a review of the work she performed while dating the mayor.
But Villaraigosa mentioned NBC Universal as recently as Monday, when he was asked by reporters why Telemundo had not contacted him as part of its internal review of Salinas. The mayor responded by suggesting that reporters put the question to NBC Universal.
Among elected officials in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa is by far the biggest champion of NBC Universal’s plan for Universal City, which ranks among the region’s largest development projects. The plan, which calls for new homes, production facilities, office buildings and a 500-room hotel, is rivaled only by two projects in downtown Los Angeles -- the proposed Grand Avenue development and L.A. Live, a hotel and entertainment complex being built just north of Staples Center.
Villaraigosa spoke vigorously in favor of the Universal City project in December, when NBC Universal executives announced components of the development plan. On Wednesday, Villaraigosa repeated his support, calling it a critical economic development project.
By comparison, City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes neighborhoods around Universal City, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky have both characterized NBC Universal’s plan as too large, saying the resulting traffic would threaten to overwhelm the region’s roads.
“The councilman is opposed to the project as proposed,” said Renee Weitzer, chief of staff to LaBonge, who is out of the country and could not be reached. “We feel it’s too dense. It’s too big, and the site is too small.”
Backers of the Universal City expansion plan have had a relationship with Villaraigosa since he was elected mayor in 2005. Days before he took office, NBC Universal spent $25,000 to attend his inaugural gala, as did KNBC-TV, Channel 4, the company’s local affiliate. NBC Universal’s Spanish-language stations, Telemundo-52 and KWHY-TV, Channel 22, spent a combined $10,000.
Villaraigosa will have considerable sway over the development project, which will go before his appointees at the citywide Planning Commission and require considerable oversight from Gail Goldberg, the Planning Department general manager whom he hired last year. Villaraigosa has met at least twice with LaBonge to discuss it.
Politicians in California are required to recuse themselves from acting on issues where they or their spouses have a significant financial interest. The situation involving Villaraigosa raises a far less typical question: Should a politician recuse himself from an issue involving a woman who is not his wife?
One government watchdog said such a request would be a stretch, in part because the state’s conflict-of-interest law deals mainly with politicians’ spouses and children -- not people with whom they are having a romantic relationship.
“There aren’t any provisions I know about that deal with a girlfriend or a significant other,” said Steve Levin, project manager for the Center for Governmental Studies.
Even more difficult is the question of how the mayor could step away from a project that touches so many parts of municipal government.
Universal City’s project “is so massive that every aspect of city government is involved in it,” Bogy added. “So I don’t know how the mayor recuses himself. But if nothing else, he has a duty to acknowledge exactly what happened and not hide behind the veil of privacy.”