Wong guilty on 14 counts
A jury found former Los Angeles city commissioner Leland Wong guilty of public corruption Thursday, ending a criminal investigation that figured in former Mayor James K. Hahn’s 2005 election defeat.
Wong, a Hahn appointee and longtime member of the city’s volunteer commissions overseeing city contracts, was found guilty on 14 felony counts. He was found not guilty of seven other corruption charges. The district attorney’s office said Wong faces a potential sentence of more than 10 years.
The most significant verdict involved the charge that Wong received $100,000 in bribes in a secret Hong Kong account from Ren-Gung Shyu, executive vice president of Taipei-based Evergreen Marine Corp. The payment was an enticement to get the giant Taiwanese shipping line more space at the Port of Los Angeles. In exchange, Wong exerted his influence as a member of the city’s airport commission in order to benefit the firm.
“Mr. Wong was corrupt,” said the lead prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman. “I am ecstatic with the jury’s decision.”
The prosecution, however, failed to win guilty verdicts on counts related to the most titillating aspect of the case. Wong was found not guilty of embezzling money from his former employer, Kaiser Permanente, in order to pay for massages for former Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards at a spa that leases space at the Westin Bonaventure, where, Edwards said, masseuses provided sexual favors.
The prosecution was also unable to prove a conflict-of-interest charge resulting from Wong’s vote on an airport contract for concession company W.H. Smith. Prosecutors alleged that he sought business at the same time with Sean Anderson, then W.H. Smith’s chief executive.
“We are obviously disappointed that we did not obtain not-guilty verdicts on all counts,” said defense attorney Janet I. Levine. “We have not decided whether to appeal but are considering our options.”
Wong is a second-generation Chinese American raised in Los Angeles’ Chinatown who rose to low-profile positions of power. Wong curried enough political favor with L.A. mayors Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan and James K. Hahn to serve for nearly 14 continuous years on the biggest city commissions.
Until his departure, Wong had kept a firm political grip by combining his skill as a solid political fundraiser with his position at Kaiser, where for 16 years he not only served as a lobbyist but also directed the nonprofit’s charitable contributions to clinics, boys clubs and other community organizations that are important in an officeholder’s district.
Trouble came when the district attorney launched an investigation into suspicions that officials in the Hahn administration traded city contracts for campaign contributions. Investigators were never able to prove those allegations and instead turned to Wong.
At the same time, news of the inquiry tainted the former mayor as he ran for reelection. More than a third of those likely to vote said they believed Hahn lacked the integrity and honesty to merit a second term, according to a 2005 Los Angeles Times poll.
Hahn told The Times Thursday that he commended the district attorney for Wong’s conviction.
“It is very disappointing to see that [Wong’s] conduct did not measure up to what it should be for someone in public service,” Hahn said. “It’s unfortunate and hopefully sends a message to everyone else in public service that it is important to hold up the public trust.”
Levine said that prosecutors unfairly targeted Wong in order to justify the investigation and that Wong was upfront about his consulting work for Evergreen Marine Corp.
Juror No. 9, who declined to give his name, said that despite his vote for guilty verdicts, he also thought that Wong might have been overzealously targeted.
“They probably picked on him. They threw a lot of stuff at him, big and small,” the juror said, adding that he believed Wong’s behavior was probably common at City Hall.
“No matter how common it is,” Huntsman said, “it is criminal and it should absolutely be punished and controlled.”