Los Angeles’ planning department was paying its former top executive more than $18,000 a month in consulting fees during the period when he was illegally lobbying managers in that same agency on behalf of real estate developers, documents show.
Former planning director Michael LoGrande recently admitted to violating city ethics laws by lobbying planning department officials just months after leaving his job running the agency. Under the city’s “revolving door” rules, certain officials are barred from lobbying elected officials, high-level managers and other decision makers within one year of leaving city employment.
Three of the four violations took place in early 2016, while LoGrande was under contract with the city to provide “strategic advice” on various planning issues, a Times review of documents found.
The Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to fine LoGrande $281,250, the largest penalty levied against a current or former city employee. It is the biggest fine ever imposed for a city revolving door case.
“These are extremely serious violations that illustrate the reason we have revolving door laws,” Ethics Commission President Melinda Murray said in a statement. “Former city officials should not use inside information or personal relationships to try to create a special benefit for themselves or their clients.”
LoGrande’s consulting work for the city was not mentioned by city investigators as part of their enforcement case against him. Neither LoGrande nor City Ethics Commission staffers would comment on his consulting contract, which paid him $54,750 over three months.
The arrangement troubled some critics. Damien Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which has weighed in on city planning decisions, called it “mind-boggling.”
How, Goodmon asked, “could you have the city literally paying for someone to do consulting work on their behalf at the same time that they’re pushing projects before the agency?”
Experts say revolving door rules are meant to prevent former public officials from immediately parlaying their insider knowledge and connections into jobs helping moneyed interests to influence government decisions.
“They’re selling access that normal people would not have,” said Rey López-Calderón, executive director of the good government group California Common Cause, describing it as “gaming the system.”
LoGrande stepped down from his position as planning director in January 2016 and immediately obtained a consulting contract with the planning department covering the period from February 2016 to April 2016. To secure the consulting gig, LoGrande had to submit an “irrevocable” letter of resignation, according to the agreement, which was signed by LoGrande and then-Deputy Mayor Kelli Bernard.
LoGrande’s contract called on him to provide “strategic advice” on such issues as transportation planning and redevelopment.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, who hires and fires city department heads, said LoGrande received the city consulting contract in order to finish up work before his replacement took over. “He was an expert, I thought, in helping us be able to continue streamlining systems and think through good planning and zoning,” the mayor said in an interview.
A Garcetti aide said no one in the mayor’s office was aware of LoGrande’s illegal lobbying activity at the time. “The mayor is grateful to the whistleblower who brought this matter to light,” said mayoral spokesman Alex Comisar.
Weeks after he received the contract, LoGrande began seeking to influence planning department decisions on behalf of clients of his new firm, LoGrande & Co.
LoGrande was being paid as a city consultant when he contacted a planning department supervisor about a request from a client, HQ Development, to convert a piece of property in Hollywood into a parking lot. The supervisor, a personal friend with whom LoGrande had worked for many years, approved the request to expedite the city review of the project, city investigators found.
While under contract with the city, LoGrande also contacted planning department staffers about sparing a hotel developer in Hollywood from having to obtain a zone change and reducing fees for a project in Woodland Hills. LoGrande did not succeed in either of those efforts, the city’s report said.
After his city contract ended, LoGrande also lobbied the city on behalf of Soho House & Co., which was seeking to convert an industrial building into a private club, according to the city report.
The Ethics Commission report did not mention that LoGrande also picked up work with Vella Group, a company that has been seeking city approval for a 30-story hotel and residential project in the Arts District.
LoGrande filed the application on behalf of Vella Group and VE Equities in January 2017, according to city records. He registered with the city as an in-house lobbyist for Vella Group in 2018, well after his one-year-ban on lobbying had ended.
Emails obtained by The Times through a public records request show that LoGrande was already communicating with businessmen behind the project between September 2015 and January 2016, while he was still running the planning department.
Frank Gallo, vice president of Rancho Cold Storage, asked to set up a meeting with LoGrande and LoGrande agreed, according to the emails. Rancho Cold Storage owns the Arts District site where Vella and VE Equities are seeking to build, according to county records.
LoGrande also scheduled at least two conference calls with a developer tied to Vella Group and VE Equities. And in January 2016, days before he stepped down, LoGrande emailed himself a draft proposal between VE Equities and Rancho Cold Storage for selling or redeveloping the Arts District site, according to emails obtained by The Times.
Neither LoGrande nor his attorney would answer questions about the document or whether he had negotiated his work with Vella Group while he was running the planning department. A representative of the Arts District project declined to comment.
None of the records obtained by The Times shows that the planning department was reviewing the Arts District project while LoGrande was in charge. Ethics Commission staffers would not answer questions about whether investigators had looked into LoGrande’s working on behalf of Vella or VE Equities.