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Downtown L.A. developer donated $50,000 before pivotal vote involving high-rise project, records show

The three structures on the western half of Times Mirror Square? a parking garage, former printing p
Real estate developer Onni Group wants to raze a 1973 office building designed by William Pereira, part of its plan for building two residential towers. Onni gave $50,000 to a committee with ties to Councilman Jose Huizar two months before a crucial vote on the site.
(L.A. Department of City Planning)

A real estate company seeking to raze a portion of the former Los Angeles Times headquarters and replace it with two high-rise towers gave $50,000 to a campaign committee with ties to Councilman Jose Huizar two months before a crucial vote on the property, according to recently filed contribution records.

Onni Contracting (California) Inc., part of the group of companies that bought the downtown property in 2016, made the donation to Families for a Better Los Angeles. The committee held at least two fundraisers featuring Huizar last year.

State fundraising disclosures show the committee received the donation on Sept. 26, just as Onni was working to defeat a proposal to designate the 1973 office building, designed by renowned modernist architect William Pereira, as a historic landmark.

Preservation of the Pereira building would have complicated Onni’s plan for building the two residential towers — one 37 stories, the other 53.

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Huizar, who represents downtown, sided with Onni on the issue, sending an aide to testify against the monument designation for the Pereira portion of the complex on Nov. 27, when the council’s planning committee took up the proposal. The committee voted that day to oppose the monument application for the Pereira building, saying the city needs the housing the project would provide. The full council followed suit a week later.

The donation from Onni arrived weeks before Huizar’s home and offices were raided by FBI agents. Since those raids, The Times has reported that Families for a Better Los Angeles has come under scrutiny from the FBI in its corruption investigation into Huizar and other City Hall figures.

No one has been arrested in the probe. There is no indication that investigators are examining the vote on the former Times complex and no evidence that the vote was influenced by the donation.

Families for a Better Los Angeles was formed as a state political committee in December 2017 and has collected more than $290,000 so far — much of it from real estate interests in Huizar’s district, state records show. Although Huizar is not listed on Families’ paperwork, several contributors said he was involved in the effort to raise money for the committee.

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Three donors told The Times they gave to the Families committee last year to support Richelle Huizar, who was planning a campaign to replace her husband on the council.

A fourth, veteran lobbyist Arnie Berghoff, said Huizar personally asked him to hold a fundraiser for the group and invite some of his clients — but that the councilman did not mention his wife.

Huizar spokesman Rick Coca referred questions about the committee to the councilman’s lawyers, who declined to answer them directly. “Councilman Huizar continues to work tirelessly to promote the growth and vibrancy of his district,” the lawyers said in an email.

Onni Contracting is one of several businesses that exist under the umbrella of Vancouver-based Onni Group, the project’s developer. Asked about the timing of the $50,000 contribution, Onni Group chief of staff Duncan Wlodarczak​ did not directly respond. Instead, he said company officials believe it’s important to “support the local communities in which we do business.”

“Through our work, we regularly contribute to philanthropic causes, community organizations or events, and political campaigns and candidates, and we are regularly approached by individuals involved in all three,” he said in an email.

Under the city’s campaign finance laws, donors cannot contribute more than $800 per election cycle to a council member’s election campaign. There are no limits, however, on the amount that can be given to an independent committee, such as Families for a Better Los Angeles.

The city’s elected officials have a long history of collecting such unlimited contributions for ballot measure campaigns, nonprofit groups and charitable causes. In recent weeks, council members have begun looking at the idea of barring developers from making donations to philanthropic causes at the request of city elected officials.

Families for a Better Los Angeles filed its latest fundraising report last week, disclosing donations received during the six-month period that ended Dec. 31. The committee took in $2,500 from attorney William Delvac, who represented Onni before the council committee, according to the report.

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Berghoff, the lobbyist, gave $500 and one of his firm’s clients, trash hauler Athens Services, gave $1,000. Berghoff said Huizar appeared at an Aug. 1 fundraiser for the committee, held at the downtown restaurant Dama.

“He said the committee would support candidates of like mind at the city, county or state level” who support housing, including affordable housing, Berghoff said.

Huizar also took part in a fundraiser for Families held on Jan. 30, 2018, according to two people who attended. Businessman Charlie Woo, whose company donated $2,500 to the committee, said Huizar appeared and gave remarks at the event, held at Officine Brera downtown.

The committee also reported receiving $12,500 from Kevin and Minny Chen, who were listed as executives with Arts District Development, a company seeking to build a 12-story hotel and condominium complex at 5th and Alameda streets in Huizar’s district. The committee received the money on Oct. 31 but later returned the funds, according to the report.

An attorney for the Families committee did not respond to a list of questions about the committee’s activities. However, a person familiar with the committee’s work said the donation from the Chens arrived shortly before its principals decided to halt all fundraising.

LOS ANGELES, CA-NOVEMBER 20, 2018: LA City Councilman Jose Huizar returns to his first City Council
Councilman Jose Huizar was involved in fundraising for the political committee Families for a Better Los Angeles, several donors told The Times. FBI agents raided Huizar’s home and offices on Nov. 7.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The money from the Chens was received a week before the FBI searched Huizar’s home and offices. Because the money had not yet been deposited, the committee decided to give it back, the source said.

A representative for Chen had no comment. Chen, contacted by The Times in December, would not say whether he had received a federal grand jury subpoena seeking records involving Huizar. “I’m not in a position to tell you this,” he said at the time.

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Since November, real estate developers with projects in downtown Los Angeles have received grand jury subpoenas instructing them to identify any donations they have made to Families for a Better Los Angeles and another political committee with ties to Huizar, Community Support PAC, according to two unnamed sources familiar with the order.

Community Support PAC sent mailers supporting Huizar in 2015 and since then has supported political causes favored by the councilman. Developers were also asked to disclose contributions to a Huizar reelection committee and to Bishop Mora Salesian High School, where Huizar’s wife worked as a fundraiser, the two sources said.

The news of the $50,000 contribution outraged preservationists, who had argued that the Pereira building is an important part of the city’s history, and a symbol of The Times’ transformation into a national newspaper.

Richard Schave, the cultural historian who filed the monument application, said he was “disgusted” to learn of the Onni donation. Schave said that for months leading up to the vote, he had asked Huizar’s office to set up a meeting between him and Onni’s representative on the issue. Huizar staffers repeatedly declined, he said.

Schave said he believes there is a direct connection between the donation and the final decision to reject the monument status for the Pereira building. He said that weeks before the vote, an aide to Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, then chairman of the council’s planning committee, told him that the panel would base its decision on Huizar’s input.

“She said, ‘We’re taking his direction,’” Schave said.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JULY 2, 2018. Preservationists are applying city landmark status for the for
Preservationists unsuccessfully sought city landmark status for the 1973 building designed by the renowned modernist architect William Pereira. The building is part of the complex that housed The Times and its corporate parent.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Ashley Thomas, a spokeswoman for Harris-Dawson, said Schave’s characterization was not accurate — and that the committee took into account not just Huizar’s opinion, but also the views of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission and “the broader community.”

“We took all of these into consideration when making the decision,” she said.

Onni purchased the former Times properties — several interconnected structures located on 1st Street — for $105 million in 2016, according to city and county records. Soon afterward, the company announced plans for the two towers, which would house more than 1,100 units.

The Times moved out of its downtown headquarters in July, relocating to El Segundo. Shortly before the move, Schave filed an application to have the entire Times complex designated as a historic-cultural monument — a designation that could have, at minimum, resulted in new delays for Onni’s skyscraper project.

Schave included the building designed by Pereira, architect of CBS Television City in the Fairfax district and the futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, calling the architect a “giant of California design.” His request received support from the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation organization, and the Cultural Heritage Commission, a panel made up of appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Opponents said the building was not worth saving, and had been clumsily attached to a more historically significant structure, The Times’ 1935 Art Deco headquarters building.

The council voted to landmark the Art Deco structure and a second building, constructed in 1948, in December. But they refused to do so for the Pereira building, saying the city needs the additional housing — and that the building’s history could be recognized in other ways.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser


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