When Jackie Lacey first ran for Los Angeles County district attorney, she loathed asking people for money. The veteran prosecutor eventually got comfortable working donors and settled on a pitch she could tolerate: “Can you invest in my campaign?”
Now seeking a third term in 2020, Lacey seems to rake in contributions with ease. More than $125,000 flowed into her election coffers last year despite the fact Lacey did not hold public campaign events.
Many giving to Lacey are longtime contributors to local politicians, but others include people accused of serious crimes or misconduct, or relatives and associates of the accused.
Among Lacey’s donors were the parents of a Sherman Oaks man awaiting a murder trial, a chiropractor facing insurance fraud charges in Orange County, a felon from Sun Valley convicted of trying to smuggle missile parts to Iran and a Glendale used car dealer previously sanctioned for an illegal campaign donation.
After The Times asked Lacey about those contributors, her campaign returned donations to 13 individuals or business entities, totaling about $13,000.
The district attorney “is grateful to The Times for bringing these contributions to her attention,” the campaign said in an email.
Lacey declined an interview request. In a written statement, she said she took “full responsibility” for accepting the contributions. She added, “No donor of mine has ever received different treatment than any other resident of L.A. County, because it is my job to uphold the law for every person in L.A. County.”
The contributions are at odds with the district attorney’s prior public statements about the ethics of campaign donations. Lacey condemned an opponent during the 2012 race for taking money from a man convicted of fraud a decade earlier.
“Zero tolerance of public corruption has to start in the campaign,” Lacey said after then-rival Alan Jackson professed not to have known of the contribution. “Jackson cannot just shrug this off and say, ‘I didn’t know.’ The fact is that it is his job to know — his most important job.”
Lacey’s campaign told The Times that historically she has relied on campaign staff to vet donors. In light of the problematic donors identified by the paper, she had decided to hire “a research consultant to provide an additional layer of vetting to contributions.”
This is not the first time Lacey has faced scrutiny about her campaign contributors. She was criticized two years ago for a plea deal her office made with a donor, a criminal defense attorney who had served as her campaign finance director. In that case, prosecutors allowed one of the donor’s clients, a firefighter charged in a violent assault, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, a decision lambasted in court by a veteran LAPD detective.
Campaign donations to prosecutors have come under national scrutiny in recent years in part because of the negative publicity resulting from a contribution made in 2012 to Manhattan Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance by a lawyer representing Trump family members. After Vance’s office declined to pursue fraud charges against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in connection with a struggling hotel and condominium development, the attorney donated nearly $32,000 to the Vance’s reelection campaign.
Contribution limits in L.A. races are significantly lower: $1,500 per person, per candidate. But experts said that regardless of the size of the contribution, a district attorney is well advised to have a system in place to vet every donor.
“Because D.A.s occupy such a special area of trust and we rely on them to prosecute fairly, they should impose upon themselves a higher standard,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a Columbia University law lecturer who, at the request of Vance’s office, helped devise a set of best practices for prosecutors receiving campaign donations.
She recommended that district attorneys designate a person or committee to evaluate donors, identify actual or perceived conflicts of interest, and ensure that unsavory or offensive contributions were rejected.
Svetlana and Vadim Baranovsky
On a Monday afternoon last year, a maintenance man named Yuvini Cortez was shot to death at a Hollywood apartment complex. Police theorized that he had interrupted a burglary, and soon arrested Gregory Baranovsky, a Sherman Oaks man with a long rap sheet.
Baranovsky, then 39, had once aspired to be a deejay, but began using drugs and running afoul of the law. In his 20s and early 30s, there were DUIs and arrests for drug possession, cases he resolved with short jail stints and misdemeanor convictions.
In recent years, his legal troubles escalated with felony charges for identity theft and possession of burglary tools.
“It seems as if the defendant is determined to continue his criminal career as he has in the past, by stealing and using other people’s information to enable his narcotic addiction,” a probation officer wrote in a September 2016 report.
Placed on probation, Baranovsky flouted the terms and ended up in custody again and again.
The following year, with Baranovsky still cycling through the courts, his parents did something that public records indicate they had never done before: They made a political contribution. Svetlana Baranovsky, a physician, and her music producer husband, Vadim, each gave $1,500 to Lacey’s campaign. The Ukrainian immigrants had not previously demonstrated any public interest in local politics, and at the time of their donation, September 2017, the district attorney’s race was more than three years away.
Less than five months later, their son was arrested in Cortez’s killing. He was charged with first-degree murder. Lacey’s office has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.
As the case moved forward in L.A. County Superior Court last year, the Baranovskys once again donated the maximum allowed to Lacey, bringing their total contributions to her campaign to $6,000. The same day the Baranovskys gave, a longtime friend and fellow Ukrainian immigrant, Dr. Alexander Zaks, and his wife also made contributions totaling $3,000.
His lawyers have told a judge they plan to present evidence at a hearing next month that another person killed Cortez.
In a brief interview at his doorstep, Vadim Baranovsky said, “We are not donating anymore.”
Asked whether the contributions were related to his son’s case, he said, “I’m done. That’s it. We’re finished,” and closed his door.
His wife could not be reached for comment.
Through an attorney, Zaks said he asked the Baranovskys and other friends to donate to Lacey, whom he had supported for years, and that he had never talked to the district attorney or her staff about the Baranovsky case.
Lacey’s campaign said it returned the Baranovskys’ donations.
Lacey’s counterparts in the Orange County district attorney’s office charged chiropractor Bryan Aun in October with 11 felony counts for his alleged role in a years-long workers’ compensation fraud scheme.
About eight weeks later, Aun donated $1,500 to Lacey’s campaign — his third donation to her. Aun and his wife first donated to Lacey’s inaugural run for district attorney in 2012.
The following year, Lacey’s office was conducting an organized crime investigation, and Aun turned up in its crosshairs. An undercover investigator went to Aun’s Anaheim clinic, posing as an injured gardener, and secretly recorded as Aun, unprompted, offered to put him on disability for a year.
“I can make sure that I write you reports that give you the most dollar value,” Aun told the undercover investigator during the 2013 appointment, according to an accusation filed against him by the state chiropractic licensing board.
Aun exaggerated the lengths of appointments with the undercover investigator and billed for tests that were never performed, according to the chiropractic board accusation. He agreed to a suspension of his license last year, pending remedial classes.
Lacey’s office shared evidence from its investigation, including the recordings and billing documents, with the board, but did not pursue criminal charges because Aun’s office was outside L.A. County. A spokesman for Lacey said in a statement that the case was referred to the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Since 2014, private insurance companies have referred Lacey’s office to Aun’s alleged conduct on three occasions, according to the spokesman. The most recent came in 2018, and by then he was facing criminal charges in Orange County.
Aun has pleaded not guilty. In a brief telephone interview, he said he “can’t recall” what motivated him to contribute to Lacey’s campaign.
The campaign said it returned Aun’s donations.
Another Lacey donor was Andre Telimi, also known as Andro Telemi, an Iranian immigrant convicted in 2012 in what authorities said was a plot to smuggle weapons to his native country.
The Sun Valley businessman admitted picking up missile components and planning to ship the parts to Dubai, where another conspirator was to ferry the package to Iran, court records filed by prosecutors show. Investigators arrested Telimi in 2009 before he sent the equipment.
Federal prosecutors in Chicago, who handled the case, considered Telimi a minor figure in the plot but nevertheless said he “sought to arm a state sponsor of terrorism.”
He received a sentence of probation.
Telimi’s $1,000 donation to Lacey in December was a rare expression of interest in politics. Voting records show that he has not cast a ballot in L.A. County since at least 2000.
Reached by phone at the auto repair shop where he works, Telimi said his criminal conviction had nothing to do with his contribution.
“It was a long time ago,” he said. He said he learned about Lacey from his landlord, Glendale car dealer Onnik Mehrabian, and felt the district attorney shared his anti-drug views. “I don’t know the person personally,” he said of Lacey.
Her campaign said it returned Telimi’s donations.
Mehrabian was among Lacey’s biggest supporters last year. On Dec. 31, the 66-year-old Iranian immigrant, his son and daughter-in-law, two employees, his wife’s preschool, two of his car businesses, an employee’s company, and his tenant, Telimi, all made separate donations to Lacey totaling $8,500.
Weeks after the donations went to Lacey’s campaign, Mehrabian and the district attorney had lunch in Glendale. In an interview, Mehrabian said that the meal was “an appreciation lunch” for a $5,000 donation he made in 2017 to a Christian charity supported by Lacey, and that an official from the charity joined him and Lacey at lunch.
Her campaign said the lunch was set up by her fundraising staff who arrange meals “to update [donors] on the reelection campaign.”
Mehrabian’s companies have been sued repeatedly for allegedly concealing the accident histories of cars sold to customers. In one case, a customer purchased a sedan with just over 14,000 miles on the odometer, only to learn later from a Carfax report that the Volkswagen had more than 116,000 miles, according to court records. That and most of the other cases filed by disgruntled customers were settled before trial. He has never faced criminal charges related to his car sales, and Mehrabian said in an interview that he had never been questioned by law enforcement about complaints by unhappy customers.
He said inattentive employees might be to blame for lawsuits, writing in an email, “I was a car dealer for over 40 years, having sold over 100,000 cars. I may have had a couple small incidents.”
Mehrabian, a onetime candidate for the Glendale City Council, was previously fined $22,500 by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. The group found that he had failed to disclose the purchase of two large signs along the 5 Freeway supporting the 2013 election campaign of Carmen Trutanich as city attorney.
Mehrabian accepted responsibility for the campaign signs, writing that it was the result of “a lack of knowledge on my part, as I did not know the regulations.”