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L.A. housing department employee moonlighted for motel embroiled in tenant lawsuits

Marcos De La Toba, a former tenant at the Royal Park Motel, in front of the building at the center of numerous lawsuits.
Marcos De La Toba, a former tenant at the Royal Park Motel, stands in front of the building at the center of numerous lawsuits that allege residents and workers were exposed to asbestos and other toxins.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When Brandy Mahone saw an unfamiliar man taking photos around the run-down motel she called home, she assumed he must be a city employee and started chatting, sharing her concerns as a tenant.

She was jarred, she said, when she later saw the same man accepting cash from a motel worker. “You told me you were going to help me,” she remembers thinking, “and it turns out you were in bed together.”

Courtney Durham was working for the housing department at that time, earning more than $120,000 annually to run a program helping poor seniors and disabled people with free repairs, according to city payroll officials.

He was also moonlighting as a consultant at the Royal Park Motel, assisting a building owner who has been accused of illegally ejecting tenants and jeopardizing their health with asbestos, lead and other toxic substances.

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His dual role landed him in hot water with the city and has spurred accusations that Durham, a longtime Los Angeles city employee, was involved in alleged wrongdoing that harmed families at the motel.

Durham did not respond to messages from The Times, and his attorney said Durham did not want to comment. City officials said his official responsibilities at the housing department did not involve the Westlake building.

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said that nonetheless, Durham should have at least flagged dangerous practices at a building where families lived.

This is “a city employee who gets paid by city taxpayers to protect people,” she said.

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The Westlake motel was a modest home for renters on the economic margins — a 1966 building with more than a hundred units and a retail space in one wing that at one point was occupied by a Thai restaurant. It was one of a dwindling number of residential motels in the city, providing cheap accommodations for as little as $600 a month.

The motel made the news one Christmas six years ago when a fire tore through the building. In its aftermath, tenants say owner Gerald Wang embarked on repairs — and illegally tried to turn the building into a tourist hotel to turn a higher profit.

Nearly two years ago, former tenants reached a settlement exceeding $1 million over complaints that they were illegally evicted as Wang and his associates overhauled the aging building.

Wang still faces five other lawsuits from former tenants and people who worked at the Royal Park, who say they were exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances. Although Durham is not a defendant in the lawsuits, he has been deposed in the ongoing litigation over the motel.

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Housing officials say Durham never obtained permission for his side job, which included commissioning reports that detected asbestos in the building. In June, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission fined him nearly $19,000 for failing to get city approval for the side job. Such outside work is allowed only if it doesn’t conflict with department interests.

After renovations got underway several years ago, the housing department fielded repeated complaints about illegal construction and shoddy conditions. Mahone lodged a complaint in 2016 about being ejected from her unit.

John M. Barger is brother to Supervisor Kathryn Barger and a Republican donor. As a Postal Service governor, his life is suddenly filled with complaints and picketers.

The housing department warned the motel that if Mahone was being displaced for any repairs, she had to be allowed back into her unit at her same rent when the work was done. Wang was loath to do that, stating in an email that it would be a “problem.” He turned to Durham, who had worked on and off for the housing department for decades.

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“You do not want this to escalate,” Durham advised Wang in an email reviewed by The Times, telling him to respond to the housing department “ASAP” and try to hold off on renovating that unit until last.

“In the meantime you can negotiate,” Durham wrote. “Never admit that you evicted the tenant.”

Durham emailed Wang the following day to say that “as I understand it, the case is currently closed.”

Mahone said she never heard back about her complaint. A motel employee offered her some money and moved her into another motel, she said, but only for a few weeks before ejecting her. She said she ended up on the streets for months with her husband and daughter.

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Nicolas Rodriguez, who was working at the motel at the time, told a city official in an email that Durham had taken a crucial step to thwart the complaint: Providing Wang with a letter that said tenants did not have to move permanently for the renovations.

Rodriguez said that when a housing inspector saw that letter, “to my astonishment the case was closed.” But tenants like Mahone were still being illegally removed, Rodriguez wrote, complaining that she and her husband had gotten much less money to relocate than they were entitled to under city rules.

What Durham did, Rodriguez wrote in another email to the housing department, allowed the motel owner “to deprive many good Los Angeles residents of their rights.”

Rodriguez is now among the people suing Wang over conditions at the motel, alleging in his lawsuit wrongful termination and hazardous conditions at the building. The aging motel was later sold to a new owner and is being rehabilitated to become housing for homeless veterans, bolstered by taxpayer funding.

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In an email, Wang said he was confident that the allegations against him would not be substantiated, stating that when repairs were needed after the fire in the building, “we retained a licensed contractor who obtained all necessary permits and clearances.” He declined to comment further.

Royal Park was cited by government agencies over the renovations: The building department slapped the motel with a violation order for unpermitted work in the restaurant area of the building. Air quality regulators also issued a violation for failing to notify them about renovating restaurant ceilings that contained asbestos.

In a deposition, a South Coast Air Quality Management District inspector said it was unclear whether asbestos was safely removed from the restaurant area, since no one admitted how it had been taken out. Wang and companies tied to him and his wife agreed to pay $12,000 over the violation without admitting liability.

L.A.'s county public health agency also said it was unclear if the restaurant work was properly contained to prevent contaminating residential areas of the motel. Construction worker Maximino Hernandez Valencia said laborers in the restaurant were told to take debris to a dumpster outside and put mattresses on top.

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“They didn’t want people to notice it was there,” Valencia said in Spanish. He is now suing Wang for wrongful termination and other alleged violations, contending that an accident at the site led to the loss of his eye.

Valencia said in a deposition that he saw other crews working at the motel, including an asbestos team dressed in protective suits, but he didn’t have the same protection when he and other laborers worked in rooms and the restaurant.

Durham has distanced himself from the work in the restaurant: In a letter to an air quality inspector, he said the work he assisted with was limited to 53 motel units and that it was “conducted in full compliance with governing codes.”

At one point, however, Durham commissioned a report that detected asbestos at the restaurant — the area that spurred the air quality violation. He told the inspector he had gotten that report for “bidding purposes.”

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Durham said in a deposition that he had estimated the costs and handled payment for a licensed asbestos removal contractor, but did not inspect any of the work at the motel or do any construction work himself. City investigators calculated he earned roughly $44,000 in profits for his work at Royal Park.

Durham also said he didn’t know what another contractor embroiled in the litigation — a friend of his named Eddy Liu — was doing at the motel. Emails obtained in connection with the tenants’ lawsuit show, however, that they were in contact about the building, with Durham repeatedly copying Liu on emailsand sending him a report about asbestos at the site.

Valencia, the construction worker who lost his eye, identified Liu as one of the “bosses” for the job and is suing him and Wang for wrongful termination, asbestos exposure and other unsafe conditions. Liu has denied Valencia’s claims and is contesting a state fine over safety violations. He said in an email that his work at Royal Park was limited to remodeling hotel rooms, not the restaurant, and that all asbestos was removed before his crew arrived.

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Durham did not initially list any outside income on government forms that he was required to turn in annually while he was working with the Royal Park. Under rules for the housing department, Durham was supposed to report any income from any person or business involved in “construction contracting” or “technical assistance” in L.A.

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It was not until February, years after the forms were first filed, that Durham amended them to include his income from Royal Park. In a deposition, Durham said he didn’t think the form asked him to disclose his business with Wang.

In June, he was fined $18,750 by the Ethics Commission for doing outside work without permission from the housing department— permission that he would not have gotten for working at Royal Park, investigators said. When investigators first contacted Durham, he “initially sought to conceal his activity,” they found, calling his actions “a deliberate violation.” Durham agreed to pay the penalty.

The housing department declined to say what action it had taken.As of early August, Durham was still employed with the department. Former tenant Marcos De La Toba, one of the people suing over asbestos contamination at the motel, said that “when a city official who is entrusted with the well-being of the residents in the city of Los Angeles does this, you feel unsafe.”

“You feel like you cannot trust city officials anymore,” De La Toba said.


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