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Suing Los Angeles is part of City Hall lobbyist’s routine

Of the 363 lobbyists who worked the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall last year, no one took the city to court more than Benjamin Reznik.

By his own calculation, the veteran land-use lawyer and lobbyist has filed more than 150 lawsuits against the city’s boards, commissions and elected officials over the course of his 32-year career, more than any of his peers.

Yet Reznik, 57, is also a frequent campaign fundraiser for elected officials, the same ones who decide not only whether to approve his clients’ development projects, but whether to fight or settle should they wind up in court. One recent beneficiary was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a candidate for city attorney who held a $1,000 per person fundraiser at Reznik’s Encino home.

The Dec. 14 event has drawn fire from another candidate in the race, Deputy City Atty. Michael Amerian, who said that while such practices are legal, voters expect Weiss to be more careful. “Taking money from anyone with such a long history of suing the city when you’re running to be the city attorney just looks bad, and is a big part of why people don’t trust politicians,” he said.

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Last year, Reznik fought Los Angeles in court over a proposed 24-home subdivision in El Sereno, a planned apartment building in North Hollywood, a hotel lighting scheme in Brentwood and a five-story apartment building in Del Rey -- all projects officials had either rejected or scaled back.

If elected, Weiss would run the office that defends the city in such cases and advises the City Council on how to treat other Reznik clients. Reznik’s firm, Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, had 83 City Hall lobbying clients last year.

Weiss’ campaign consultant, Ace Smith, said Weiss would fight “tooth and nail” for the city, regardless of the law firm or lobbyist involved. Smith also said campaign contributions would play no role in settlement discussions. “Jack Weiss calls them as he sees them. It’s just that simple,” he added. “He calls them on the merits, and that’s the way he’s handled his entire career.”

Reznik is one of many lobbyists who raise money for Los Angeles politicians. What sets him apart, however, is the frequency with which he sues the city, or threatens to do so.

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Reznik estimated that he averages five to six lawsuits against the city per year -- a tally that does not include his cases against other public agencies. That makes him far more pugnacious than other lobbyists at City Hall.

“Reznik is the most litigious attorney that I have ever encountered in the city,” said redevelopment agency commissioner Madeline Janis. “Reznik is the kind of lawyer where you are very careful what you say, because he will turn around and sue the city on anything.”

Reznik, for his part, said he is more of a lawyer than a lobbyist, fighting in court to ensure that city departments do not deprive his clients of their legal rights. Although he has raised money for many politicians, he said he worked especially closely with Weiss on behalf of religious institutions that have navigated the city’s difficult planning process.

“Even before I knew what the field [of candidates] was going to look like, I thought he’d make a very good city attorney,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a secret that he doesn’t like land use. He’s more interested in security and other big-picture issues. But he’s very smart and he’s a prosecutor. He’s got the credentials.”

Weiss is hardly the only person to benefit from Reznik’s clout. Reznik has raised money for Amerian’s boss, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, and for Councilmen Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar -- Weiss’ two colleagues on the council’s planning committee, which reviews major development projects.

Reznik has also shown interest in the council race to replace Weiss on the Westside, sending out invitations for at least two of the six candidates. And he has recommended that clients contribute to the reelection campaigns of Council Members Janice Hahn, Eric Garcetti and Dennis Zine.

Reznik has the type of clients that make planners and neighborhood groups apoplectic -- a high-rise hotel in Koreatown, an apartment building in Warner Center, a company that placed a supergraphic banner ad on a historic hotel in Hollywood. Several have sought to turn their rental units into condominiums, forcing out tenants in neighborhoods from Playa del Rey to Panorama City.

Those condominium conversions have come under fire from lawyer Noel Weiss, another candidate for city attorney, who said Los Angeles officials must do more to protect renters. “They’re doing a bad job . . . taking care of the people, and that’s really where the role of a competent city attorney would take care of it,” said Noel Weiss, who represents tenants who seek better relocation benefits. He is not related to Jack Weiss.

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In recent months, Reznik has been filing cases based on a state law that allows developers to weaken city planning rules as long as they include at least one unit of affordable housing in their residential projects. Reznik contends that the law prevents the city from imposing certain height limits and other changes aimed at making a project fit the scale of a particular neighborhood.

That legal argument helped him prevail in Del Rey, where he blocked the Planning Commission from changing the design of a 25-unit apartment building.

The five-story structure is now going up two doors from the single-family home of healthcare researcher Vicki Karlan, who is dismayed at Reznik’s political heft.

“I’ve completely lost faith in city government because I’ve seen how it works,” she said. “The city is funded by developers and the attorneys who represent the developers.”

One of Reznik’s best-known clients is Geoffrey Palmer, who has built a series of faux-Italianate apartment buildings around downtown Los Angeles. Palmer fought the city’s affordable housing requirements and ran into trouble with building inspectors after his company demolished an 1887 Victorian in Chinatown.

Reznik countersued on Palmer’s behalf, arguing that the city had placed his client in a Catch-22 -- ordering him to repair a nuisance property yet blocking him when he sought to raze it. The city ultimately settled.

Asked whether his political activities have influenced city decisions, Reznik pointed out that he held two fundraisers for Huizar only to see the councilman oppose a client’s development plans in El Sereno. Reznik sued and won the right to move ahead with the 24-home subdivision last month and now plans to seek at least $8 million in damages from the city.

Reznik said he also does not expect that his fundraising for Weiss would have any influence on future cases. The City Council has the final word on litigation, not the city attorney, he added.

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“As you can see from recent history, the council does not necessarily decide to listen to the city attorney,” he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

L.A. voters to go

to polls Tuesday

Los Angeles voters will go to the polls Tuesday to make their choices for mayor, city attorney, city controller, eight City Council seats, three school board members, four community college district trustees and five ballot measures.

Polls for the primary election will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For polling places and other information, go to cityclerk.lacity.org/election /index.htm.

Source: L.A. city clerk’s office


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