A judge on Friday sentenced onetime Los Angeles city commissioner Leland Wong to five years in state prison, bringing an end to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s “pay to play” investigation of the administration of former Mayor James K. Hahn.
Wong, the son of Chinese immigrants who had served in the administrations of three Los Angeles mayors, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs as his friends and family watched. The San Marino resident was found guilty in July on 14 felony counts, including bribery, conflict of interest, perjury and embezzlement.
Prosecutors accused Wong of receiving monthly payments of $5,000, deposited into an off-shore bank account, from Evergreen Marine Corp., a Taiwanese shipping firm that was hoping to negotiate a lucrative new lease at the Port of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson called prison an appropriate punishment for an experienced city commissioner who used duplicity to help Evergreen gain “extraordinary access to city officials.” Wong, 51, hid his financial relationship with Evergreen from harbor and airport officials and told Evergreen there was nothing unlawful about his actions, the judge said.
“He was engaged in graft and corruption, pure and simple,” Johnson said.
Attorney Janet I. Levine, who represents Wong, said her client planned to file an appeal of his conviction and would ask the state Court of Appeal to release him pending that action. Levine also described her client as a giving public servant who deserved probation, not a prison sentence.
“The man has given his all to the community,” she said. “He’s not a danger. And he can give a lot more back.”
Wong’s sentencing concludes Cooley’s 5-year-old investigation of the Hahn administration, one that involved two grand juries and a joint effort with federal officials. Although the “pay to play” inquiry originally focused on the Hahn administration’s handling of campaign contributions and city contracts, no charges were ever filed in that area.
“This ends it,” said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.
The “pay to play” investigation also focused on Ted Stein, another onetime airport commissioner, who became the subject of allegations in 2003 that he had linked renewal of an airport contract to campaign contributions. Three different agencies -- the U.S. attorney’s office, the district attorney’s office and the city’s Ethics Commission -- closed their investigations without filing charges or seeking any enforcement action against Stein.
Wong had served as a volunteer city commissioner for Hahn and former Mayors Richard Riordan and Tom Bradley, securing posts at some of the city’s most powerful agencies. Prosecutors alleged that Wong started receiving payments from Evergreen -- a subsidiary of Evergreen Group -- in 2002 when he worked on a commission overseeing the Los Angeles World Airport.
At the time, city officials were drafting a complicated deal involving Evergreen at the harbor and another subsidiary of Evergreen Group at the airport.
Wong’s last payment from Evergreen came in 2004, while he was serving on the commission that oversees the Department of Water and Power.
During the three-week trial, former Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards testified that Wong gave him Lakers tickets and paid for massages -- which included sexual favors -- while aggressively pressuring him to help Evergreen.
Lawyers for Wong had argued that prosecutors targeted him because they were unable to make any headway on other portions of their corruption investigation.
In recent weeks, Wong’s supporters submitted letters to the judge asking for leniency. Five friends and family members praised Wong during Friday’s sentencing hearing, saying that he had done good works during his time as a public relations executive for Kaiser Permanente.
“He has proven that he has given more than he has taken, and the community as a whole is a better place because of him,” said Ronald Low, a former Hahn commissioner who served on the Board of Public Works.
Without divulging his original sentencing plan, Johnson said he eased his punishment for Wong to five years after hearing the testimonials. But he also argued that Wong had engaged in “blatant embezzlement” by using Kaiser’s money to purchase more than $300,000 in game tickets, and in some cases reselling them to his friends.
Johnson said Wong traded on his reputation as civic leader even as he secretly received $100,000 in payments from Evergreen. Those actions have done “damage to our political institutions and government,” the judge said.
Wong was also ordered to pay more than $138,000 in restitution and fines.