Serena Oberstein, John Lee attack one another over ethics in Valley council race

John Lee and Serena Oberstein.
Councilmember John Lee, left, and challenger Serena Oberstein are running for a Los Angeles City Council seat in the northwest San Fernando Valley. Both are seeking to paint the other as untrustworthy.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times; Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our City Hall newsletter. It’s Dakota Smith at the helm, with help from David Zahniser.

A stretch limousine and a chainsaw.

The disparate images are showing up on political mail in the northwest San Fernando Valley in an increasingly heated Los Angeles City Council race.

The two candidates, Councilmember John Lee and challenger Serena Oberstein, are blasting each other as untrustworthy in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

Oberstein, a nonprofit leader who lives in Northridge, is sending out mailers with images of limousines, poker chips and slot machines to highlight an ongoing Ethics Commission case against Lee, who was accused in October of 10 city ethics law violations, including several dealing with the acceptance of gifts by politicians.

Lee and his supporters, meanwhile, are sending out mailers trying to paint Oberstein — a one-time Ethics Commission president — as a hypocrite, pointing out that she ran afoul of a city law barring her from running for office in 2019, prompting a judge to remove her from the ballot.


Both candidates are seeking the Council District 12 seat, which covers Chatsworth, Porter Ranch, Sherwood Forest, Granada Hills and Northridge.

Lee is supported by several municipal unions, including ones representing the city’s police officers and Department of Water and Power workers in his reelection bid. He has benefited from more than $1 million in outside spending.

The case against Lee stems from meals and perks he accepted in Los Angeles and Las Vegas several years ago. He also has been accused of trying to mislead federal authorities about whether he and and his then-boss, Councilman Mitch Englander provided reimbursements for gifts received during the Vegas trip.

Both men backdated checks to make it look like they had previously reimbursed a businessman, according to the city’s Ethics Commission accusation. Englander was later sentenced to prison for lying to federal authorities.

Lee, who lives in Porter Ranch and was first elected in 2019, has denied wrongdoing. He told The Times he showed Ethics Commission investigators evidence, including his bank accounts.

“I just gave them access because I have nothing to hide,” Lee said in January.

The Times asked Pat Dennis, Lee’s campaign consultant, to show the evidence provided by his boss. Dennis declined, citing the ongoing case. Lee’s office also declined to explain how Lee is paying for his legal defense in the ethics case.

So far, the councilman has not started a committee to raise money for his legal fees.

Meanwhile, Lee’s supporters have been attacking Oberstein over the legal case that got her removed from the ballot five years ago.


Oberstein launched her campaign in 2019, only to have a judge rule that she was ineligible to run, since she had recently served on the Ethics Commission, which recommends campaign policies and imposes fines. Ethics Commissioners are barred from running for city office for two years if they have cast certain votes that affect that office.

At the time, Oberstein said she’d been told by the city that she could run.

One attack ad portrays Oberstein as a hypocrite — a forest-loving politician who cuts down trees with a chainsaw.

Lindsay Bubar, Oberstein’s campaign consultant, said Lee’s campaign tactics are an attempt to “distract voters from the serious allegations he’s facing.”

The allegations against Lee did not stop Mayor Karen Bass from endorsing the councilman last week. Bass advisor Yusef Robb declined to respond when asked for the mayor’s opinion of the allegations against Lee.

“She endorsed him for his partnership in her work to bring unhoused Angelenos inside,” said Robb, referring to Bass’ homelessness work with the councilman.

Bubar, asked about the mayor’s endorsement, said that the election is a “referendum on ethical leadership.” Her statement also nodded to the fact that Lee lists “no party preference” on his voter registration.

“Serena remains the only Democrat in this race who has built a broad, bipartisan coalition of people and leaders across the community who are standing up to demand a city free from corruption,” she said.


State of play

— STAYING AWAY FROM HLA: Bass continued to give the battle over Measure HLA the silent treatment this week, declining to say whether she supports or opposes the ballot measure to require hundreds of miles of bus and bike lanes. She stayed quiet even when pressed by FOX11’s Elex Michaelson during an interview. “I will get back to you,” she said.

— TRIAL BY FIRE: Residents near Cahuenga Boulevard and Franklin Avenue in Hollywood have been on edge in recent months over a series of homeless encampment fires. Sidewalk encampments in the area have created political headaches for Councilmember Nithya Raman, who is running for reelection, and for Bass, who has already carried out two Inside Safe operations in the neighborhood, only to see the area repopulate.

— SHOWING PROGRESS: Raman and Kevin de León, locked in their respective tough reelection contests, have been talking up their progress in reducing street encampments in their respective districts. Both candidates cut street homelessness by 7% in their districts, albeit during different time frames.

— FRIENDLY IN THE 14TH: De León was at the center of a huge political scandal in 2022. But the eight-way race to replace him has been mostly polite, with several candidates seeking to emphasize their positive vision for the district. So far, the sharpest elbows have been thrown by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who has sent several attack ads hitting De Leon.

— D.A. DOLLARS: The Times looked at the money being raised, and the ads being produced, in the race for Los Angeles County district attorney. Then there’s also the overarching question: Which of the many candidates running against Dist. Atty. George Gascón will succeed in breaking out of the pack?

— BATTLING BARGER: Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger may be a Republican, but as a candidate running for her third and final term, she’s making moves that would be standard fare for a Democrat. Barger has touted her support from labor unions, the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood, while also discussing her willingness to stand up to the NRA.

— FIGHTING PHOTOSHOP: Assemblymember Chris Holden, now running against Barger, said his office is filing an FPPC complaint against a political action committee that used an altered image of him in campaign mailers. The California Alliance of Family Owned Businesses PAC produced mailers criticizing Holden for free trips he took abroad — he said they were for research — displaying a doctored image of him taking a selfie and holding his passport. “That’s illegal,” he said, adding: “I don’t have a sweater like that.”


— PAC HITS BACK: The PAC’s spokesperson, Kelly Garman, brushed off the criticism, saying it’s common for campaigns to use Photoshop to “farcically depict candidate behavior.”

— MORE TO GIVE: The Ethics Commission announced Friday that it is bumping up the maximum amounts that donors can contribute to candidates for city office. Donors will be permitted to give $1,000 to council candidates and $1,800 to candidates for mayor, city attorney and city controller.

— MAILER MESSINESS: Campaign mailers promoting Councilmember Heather Hutt, who is running in Tuesday’s election in a South L.A. district, have become a subject of campaign controversy. Hutt’s consultant said she was not responsible for the mailer and had no knowledge of it.

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Quick hits

  • Where is Inside Safe? The mayor’s program to combat homelessness did not launch any new operations this week. Instead, Bass traveled with a delegation to Sacramento, where she announced that the city had secured $60 million in reimbursements for COVID-19 expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • On the docket for next week: Duh! There’s an election! Don’t forget to vote!

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