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Lobbying firms lure city staffers

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Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl needed help understanding a divisive development project or a complex issue at Los Angeles International Airport, he frequently turned to Phil Tate, a legislative aide who stood only a few feet away during most council meetings.

Rosendahl’s trusted advisor quit Sept. 28. But six weeks later, Tate was back in council chambers chatting up aides to other council offices while serving in his new capacity -- as a lobbyist for a company doing business at LAX.

Tate is just one example of the rapidly revolving door that sends city employees out to the lucrative world of paid advocacy and back in again as lobbyists. In the last six months alone, lobbying firms lured away a zoning officer, a high-level assistant city attorney and two aides to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- including his No. 2 policy advisor.

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“The credibility of city government really gets damaged by this,” said Greg Nelson, a retired city employee who spent 27 years working for former Councilman Joel Wachs. “Because people will wonder if the city employees are working for the public, or working for themselves by positioning themselves for these good-paying jobs in the private sector.”

The spate of departures also comes one year after Los Angeles voters approved Proposition R, a ballot measure that eased term limits but was sold to the electorate as a way to reduce the influence of special interests on city decision-making. The campaign’s glossy mailers used images of a mousetrap, a castle moat and a velvet rope to argue that Proposition R would keep lobbyists and their clients out of City Hall.

Although Proposition R barred lobbyists from giving gifts and campaign contributions to elected officials, it did little to address the migration of city employees to paid advocacy firms -- an issue faced by city government for years. Furthermore, the biggest impact of Proposition R was not on lobbyists but on council members, who saw term limits loosened to allow them to run for a third four-year term.

Proposition R made one small change to the revolving door, by requiring elected officials to wait two years instead of one to become a City Hall lobbyist. But plenty of non-elected city officials continue to switch teams, including:

* Marcus Allen, the No. 2 policy advisor to Villaraigosa, who left in July to form a partnership with veteran lobbyists Arnie Berghoff and Harvey Englander.

* Dan Green, a veteran zoning administrator who ruled on many land-use cases. Green has taken a job with the law firm Latham & Watkins, which has 43 clients with business before City Hall, many of them real estate developers.

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* Peter Gutierrez, a special assistant city attorney who advised the council on such projects as Playa Vista and the efforts to demolish the Lincoln Place apartment complex in Venice. Gutierrez also went to Latham & Watkins, which represents all three projects.

* Peter Brown, a Villaraigosa aide who left to join the lobbying firm MWW Group. Brown is working on such issues as the mayor’s clean-truck plan at the Port of Los Angeles.

Nelson, the onetime Wachs aide and a foe of Proposition R, said lobbying firms want city employees for two things: expertise in city policy and a network of professional -- and in some cases, personal -- relationships.

Indeed, Brown’s new employer wasted little time in capitalizing on his ties to the city’s top elected official.

“Prior to joining MWW Group, Brown served as director of scheduling to Mayor Villaraigosa, where he was regarded as the ‘gatekeeper’ and a pivotal figure in the shaping of Villaraigosa as ‘the hardest-working mayor in America,’ ” a news release sent by MWW two weeks ago reads.

Ethics rules vary greatly depending on the City Hall job that is abandoned for a lobbying career. For example, because Gutierrez is an attorney, his new law firm filed paperwork promising to keep him off any land-use project that he had reviewed as a municipal employee. Latham senior counsel Lucinda Starrett said her firm also will go beyond the city’s rules by keeping Gutierrez from working on any city matter for one year.

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Still, Gutierrez’s new colleagues will be free to consult him on the overall development process, said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. And others argue that the hiring critically undercut Rosendahl, who had repeatedly tangled with Latham clients and had relied heavily on Gutierrez’s advice.

“It’s as if the city attorney’s office were a sort of finishing school, or on-the-job training for the big law firms,” said Venice resident David Ewing, who has worked with Rosendahl to fight evictions at Lincoln Place. “If anybody in the city attorney’s office is competent enough, they get hired away to the opposition.”

Though the city’s ethics law prohibits high-level employees from lobbying for one year, its rules are less strict regarding mid-level policy experts such as Tate, a former Rosendahl aide who advised his boss at scores of meetings.

Two weeks after he resigned, Tate attended an airport commission meeting on behalf of a gift shop operator at LAX, which is in Rosendahl’s district.

Asked about his job change, Tate said it makes sense that he is barred for one year from lobbying his former council office but is permitted to weigh in with Rosendahl’s council colleagues and the airport commissioners.

“It’s absurd to think that I had this enormous influence on the other 14 council members or the airport commissioners as a mid-level staffer,” he said.

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Similarly, Brown is barred from lobbying anyone in the mayor’s office for one year. The former Villaraigosa scheduler is free, however, to contact city commissioners appointed by the mayor -- including harbor commissioners -- regarding such issues as the clean-truck program.

While Brown left Villaraigosa to join an established firm, Allen -- the mayor’s former deputy chief of staff -- formed a joint venture with veteran lobbyists Berghoff and Englander.

Englander, whose firm successfully fought efforts to impose a “living wage” requirement on hotels near LAX, already had hired away a high-level policy advisor from City Controller Laura Chick. Soon afterward, the former Chick staffer recommended that Englander meet with Allen face to face.

“I don’t think you can woo anybody who doesn’t want to be wooed,” Englander said. “But I did a lot of the wooing.”

With the city still experiencing a building boom, the revolving door has been especially busy regarding real estate development, with city employees defecting not just to lobbying firms but also to development companies. Councilwoman Janice Hahn saw her economic development advisor take a job last year with Bob Bisno of Bisno Development Co., who is pushing for the approval of 1,950 homes in her district.

Councilman Jack Weiss saw a deputy chief of staff secure a job with NBC Universal, which wants Weiss’ committee to approve a $3-billion development project at Universal City. Council President Eric Garcetti’s economic development advisor took a job with the Related Cos., which is building the Grand Avenue project in downtown L.A.

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The biggest migration typically occurs when an elected official is forced from office, either through term limits or a losing campaign. When Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski left office in 2005, her top advisor took a job at the lobbying firm Cerrell Associates.

Former Miscikowski chief of staff Lisa Gritzner now has 20 clients with business before City Hall, six of whom also have business with the airport commission. LAX is in the district Miscikowski represented.

Voters removed then-Mayor James Hahn from office the same year that Miscikowski left. Hahn’s chief of staff, Tim McOsker, appeared before the council as a lobbyist last week, pushing for a 101-bed expansion at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. McOsker also has been retained by Bisno, which has former Councilman Rudy Svorinich as one of its lobbyists and just hired away a legislative aide to Councilman Jose Huizar.

The most recent lobbying hire is Green, a veteran zoning officer known for giving intense scrutiny to development projects.

Green, who is scheduled to retire this month after 32 years at City Hall, had been criticized for his review of projects ranging from new restaurants and nightclubs to a shopping center approved in Mid-City.

“I thought that Dan Green was the toughest guy that I dealt with for many years,” said Steve Afriat, a longtime lobbyist.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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