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Billion-dollar Beverly Hills development challenged because of ex-mayor’s lobbying

Planned Beverly Hills luxury hotel
Wanda Group bought the Beverly Hills property at 9900 Wilshire Blvd. in 2014.
(Wanda Group)

Final approval of a $1.2-billion condominium and hotel project in Beverly Hills should be denied because a former mayor lobbied on behalf of its Chinese developer, according to a Sacramento attorney threatening legal action in a letter to city officials.

Ex-Mayor Barry Brucker violated the city’s “revolving door” policy that prohibits former officials from paid lobbying for projects they voted on while in office, attorney Gary Winuk wrote.

“The violation by Mr. Brucker is egregious and offensive,” he wrote. “Having former public officials be compensated to continue work on a project they voted for is unconscionable.”

Brucker has denied any inappropriate activity and said he resigned from the project as soon as concerns were raised at a City Council meeting in July.

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Brucker, who served two one-year terms as mayor, voted to approve the project at 9900 Wilshire Blvd. in 2008, when it was under different ownership and had different plans for the former Robinsons-May department store site. 

Barry Brucker speaks to guests at the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Awards on Oct. 23, 2011.
Barry Brucker speaks to guests at the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Awards on Oct. 23, 2011.
(Associated Press )

Last October, more than two years after he left the City Council, city records show, Brucker registered as a lobbyist for the One Beverly Hills project, owned by Wanda Group, the Chinese real estate and entertainment giant, which bought the property in 2014.

“There is clearly and without doubt a violation of the post-employment restrictions put into the Beverly Hills City ordinances,” wrote Winuk, a former enforcement chief for the state Fair Political Practices Commission. “The ordinances only provide for a single remedy when such a violation occurs: rejection of any contract, approval, permit or transaction related to any such violation.”

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Winuk’s letter stated that he was writing on behalf of himself and “individual City of Beverly Hills residents.” He declined to name his clients but hinted at “further legal action” if the city did not deny the project approval.

Beverly Hills City Atty. Laurence Wiener said Monday that Winuk’s letter creates the “misimpression” that such an ethics violation, even if substantiated, would force the city to deny approval.

“What the statute provides is that it is grounds for denial of a project,” Wiener said. “But it does not require denial of a project. … It doesn’t bring the whole process to a screeching halt.”

Any decisions on the project’s future will rest with the City Council, Wiener said.

Eric Rose, a Wanda spokesman, called Winuk’s letter “ridiculous” and said it was driven by opponents of the project, which includes plans for 193 luxury condos and a 134-room boutique hotel. The development is next door to the Beverly Hilton Hotel and a new Waldorf Astoria hotel under construction at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. 

The two projects have become a hot topic in Beverly Hills, in part because of the Hilton’s plan to erect a 375-foot building, which would be the tallest ever in the wealthy enclave. The Hilton project is the subject of a controversial initiative on the November ballot, which opponents, including Mayor John Mirisch, say will allow it to circumvent the usual public-review process.

“It is disappointing that an anonymous opponent of the One Beverly Hills project would seek to besmirch the good reputation of Mayor Brucker for its own purposes,” Rose said in a statement. “We find it highly suspect when a letter from an attorney in Sacramento, who is refusing to identify his client, sends a letter that is both factually and legally incorrect against the only major development project in Beverly Hills that is following the City’s environmental review process.”

Brucker quit working for Wanda on July 6, a day after his lobbying was discussed at a council meeting.

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In a letter to project representatives, Brucker said he had always “worked to follow the letter and the spirit of all laws” and had consulted Wiener about the revolving door policy and relevant time limits in July 2015. The policy allows former officials to lobby after a specified time has passed, as long as they did not vote on the project.   

Wiener confirmed that Brucker contacted him, but said he did not mention the Wanda project by name.

Brucker wrote that he did not think the lifetime lobbying ban applied in his case because the Wanda project had changed.

“I believed that due to the at least three ownership changes of the site located at 9900 Wilshire, along with the change of use, that the project that was being undertaken was not the same as the project that I voted on when I was on the Council,” he said. “Only then did I agree to become a consultant on the project.”

Brucker said he had not lobbied any elected or appointed Beverly Hills officials but had registered as a lobbyist “to make my participation transparent and known.”  He resigned as a precaution, he said.

“Since my involvement has become an issue, and in an abundance of caution, I am submitting my resignation to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” he wrote. “One Beverly Hills is a great project for the City and I look forward to being at its groundbreaking.”

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sarah Parvini contributed to this report

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