‘They’re all tainted by it.’ Federal corruption cases deal new blow to trust in City Hall
Even amid a global health crisis, the sordid revelations about Los Angeles City Hall have managed to astonish.
One Los Angeles city councilman, now out of office, admitted last week that he accepted envelopes of cash from a businessman in casino bathrooms. Another took a trip to Las Vegas where, according to federal prosecutors, city officials were lavished with hotel rooms, an extravagant dinner and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of drinks at a nightclub.
Yet another council member allegedly sought a $500,000 cash bribe from a real estate developer, according to a plea deal struck between federal investigators and a political fundraiser who admitted collecting much of the money in a paper bag.
As city leaders face urgent pleas for help from Angelenos reeling from the ripple effects of a global pandemic, they are also confronting distrust and revulsion over the alleged bribe and other “pay to play” activities that are at the heart of the federal probe. Even those who are doing good work at City Hall have been tarnished by the corruption scandals, said former Councilman Greig Smith.
“They’re all part of the system that is looked upon as corrupt, and they’re all tainted by it,” he said. “You can’t be there and not be tainted by it.”
Corruption probes aren’t new to City Hall. Over the last two decades, there have been building inspectors caught taking bribes; an airport commissioner ensnared in a conflict-of-interest case; and former Councilman Richard Alatorre, who took nearly $42,000 in cash payments from people who sought to influence his decisions. He later pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion.
What makes the ongoing federal investigations so unusual — and potentially damning for L.A. city government — is that they touch on so many politicians at once.
Former Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander, who stepped down in 2018, agreed last week to plead guilty to engaging in a scheme to deceive the FBI as it investigated allegations that a businessman provided him cash, a hotel room, an expensive meal, bottle service at a nightclub and the services of a female escort in Las Vegas.
Councilman John Lee, a former aide to Englander, confirmed he went on the Vegas trip but said he had sought to reimburse expenses — and did not receive cash or escort services. His statement has done little to dissuade critics, who have questioned his ethics and called for his resignation.
In addition, political fundraiser Justin Kim agreed to plead guilty to bribery for helping a real estate developer deliver cash to another council member. Although prosecutors did not name the elected official, their description made clear it is Councilman Jose Huizar.
A lawyer for Huizar has repeatedly declined to comment.
Investigators also have been seeking information involving Councilman Curren Price, two appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti and a high-level aide to Councilman Herb Wesson, according to a federal search warrant filed in 2018. And last summer, FBI agents searched the offices of City Atty. Mike Feuer and the L.A. Department of Water and Power in an apparently separate investigation focusing on legal contracts, cybersecurity and the utility’s handling of a customer billing debacle.
Uver Santa Cruz, an electrician who lives in the Rampart Village area, said he had suspected that the city’s elected officials were behaving in a corrupt way. But the filing of charges against Englander last month cemented those beliefs.
“We’re so deep in corruption,” said Santa Cruz, who is active with the Los Angeles Tenants Union. “And this is only the things that we’ve discovered so far.”
The federal investigation into alleged “pay to play” activities exploded into public view in November 2018, when Huizar’s home and offices were searched by FBI agents. When the council debated new campaign fundraising restrictions months later, many of its members said they were trying to address the perception — not necessarily any reality — of corruption at City Hall.
The filing of charges against Englander and Kim appeared to mark a turning point for some council members, who previously had declined to pass judgment on their colleagues.
Councilman Bob Blumenfield said he was “sickened” by the allegations contained in the two cases, saying they deal with “straight-up corruption.”
“I hope that everyone who engaged in this behavior has a day of reckoning,” he said.
Another councilman, David Ryu, said he felt “nothing but disgust” over the allegations. “My worst fears about the kind of pay-to-play politics I have been working against are being realized,” he said.
It’s not yet clear how the Englander and Kim cases could affect the reelection campaigns of City Hall incumbents, because both were filed publicly in the weeks after the March 3 municipal election.
The council’s reputation has already taken a beating over the last two years, following a major increase in homeless encampments and a steady stream of stories about federal corruption investigations, said Eric Hacopian, a political consultant based in the San Fernando Valley.
Three years ago, polling showed that a majority of respondents had a favorable view of the council, he said. By February, those numbers were “upside down,” said Hacopian, who expects public support to fall even more in the wake of the latest legal filings.
“At the end of the day, most people are not corrupt at City Hall, no matter how cynical we are,” he said. “But they all get tarred with the same brush.”
Some say the latest revelations have simply confirmed their fears about city government. For decades, residents have suspected that “money has been passed under the table,” said West Adams resident Chris Carlson, who sits on the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council, which takes in part of South Los Angeles.
“It was a great relief to see these things are being confirmed and exposed,” she said.
Serena Oberstein, a former member of the City Ethics Commission, said residents have known for years that the system is broken. Part of the problem, she said, is that the Ethics Commission lacks the money and authority to proactively go after wrongdoing.
Oberstein said one step toward rebuilding trust in City Hall would be to enhance the powers of the Ethics Commission, boosting the agency’s budget and giving it the authority to pass legislation, “so that it’s not incumbent on the City Council to regulate itself.”
Doug Epperhart, who sits on the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, voiced doubts that additional ethics rules would address the type of problems uncovered by FBI agents. The federal filings, he said, showed that at least two council members — one current, one former — are “common criminals.”
“I don’t care how many laws you pass,” he said. “A determined thief will figure out a way to steal.”
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