Former Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, testifying at the only trial stemming from “pay to play” allegations that dogged his administration, said Wednesday that he didn’t know whether one of his top commissioners was taking bribes.
While serving as airport commissioner and later water and power commissioner under Hahn, prosecutors say, former power broker Leland Wong pocketed $100,000 in payments from the Evergreen Group, a Taiwan shipping conglomerate, in exchange for exerting influence on the company’s behalf at City Hall.
Prosecutors questioned Hahn about his 2002 trade mission to Asia, during which he and his deputies negotiated with Evergreen on its lease at the Port of Los Angeles. Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman showed the former mayor a handwritten letter from Wong to Hahn’s deputy mayor pressing for a deal.
“At the time you were on that trip, conducting the negotiations, did you know whether or not Mr. Wong was being paid by any Evergreen company?” Huntsman asked.
“No, I did not,” Hahn said. “I would have liked to have known if he was being paid by the Evergreen company and if he wrote a letter like this.”
Wong’s attorneys say that the $5,000-a-month payments deposited to his Hong Kong bank account were consulting fees and that the former commissioner had filed public documents about his consultant position with Evergreen.
Hahn, in a dark blue suit and salmon-colored tie, appeared detached as he testified and rarely looked at Wong, a longtime acquaintance. Hahn testified that the city relies entirely on officials to raise concerns themselves when there is potential for a conflict of interest and has no other system in place to detect such a conflict.
“When the commissioners are initially appointed, the ethics commission looks at their statement of economic interest . . . but there doesn’t seem to be any follow-up to that,” he said, adding that there was “certainly no way to notify the important authorities, in this case me, the mayor, that circumstances had changed.”
Wong is also charged with conflicts of interest, perjury, tax evasion and embezzlement from his former employer, Kaiser Permanente. Wong was asked to resign from his later position on the city’s Water and Power Commission when Kaiser alerted city officials to suspicions raised from internal investigations there.
Allegations of “pay to play” between city contractors and city officials became a major issue in the last two years of Hahn’s administration. Amid the controversies, he was defeated for a second term by Antonio Villaraigosa.
Authorities have not accused Hahn of misconduct. But the sweeping criminal investigations into contracts and campaign contributions were considered significant in his defeat.
Wong is the only city official to be charged in connection with the probe.
After leaving office, Hahn, a former city attorney, joined the real estate and banking firm Chadwick Saylor & Co. This year he left that firm to join Alternative Resolution Centers.
Hahn is expected to resume his testimony this morning. Also testifying in the trial will be Hahn’s deputy mayor, Troy Edwards, who in return for immunity provided a grand jury with details about his relationship with Wong, saying he treated him to massages involving sexual favors and charged the bill to Kaiser.
Outside court, Hahn told reporters that Wong should have known his actions were problematic.
“He was a commissioner under Bradley, he was a commissioner under Riordan,” he said, referring to former mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan. “He should’ve known the rules.”