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California

A Santa Monica pilot wanted to save the city’s airport. So he gave the mayor a free flight

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Tony Vazquez listens during a Santa Monica City Council meeting in 2015. With a state law limiting gifts to politicians, a free flight the former mayor received in 2016 may pose a legal problem.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

With the city itching to close it down, pilot Russ Landau seized on a chance to help save the Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

The owner of a small single-engine plane, Landau said he was asked to fly Tony Vazquez, then the city’s mayor, to the Central Coast.

“I thought cool, I want to meet the mayor,” Landau said. “It was a gift from a friend… a chance for me to have Tony’s ear for a while and show him that pilots are good people.”

On Jan. 26, 2016, Landau hopped into his Cirrus SR22 single-piston plane with Vazquez and flew the politician — free of charge — late at night for more than an hour before dropping him off in Salinas.

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Seven months later, the Santa Monica Council, including Vazquez, voted to close the airport. But with state law limiting gifts to politicians, Vazquez’s free flight is raising legal questions.

Vazquez, who is now a councilman, has been enmeshed in a conflict-of-interest inquiry. A recent Times article detailed how his wife, Maria Leon-Vazquez — a board member overseeing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District — cast several votes approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts with his consulting clients.

The Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is reviewing these votes as well as architecture services provided for the couple by an architect who, around the same time, received purchase orders from the school district. The architect later joined the school board.

In the case of the free flight, Bob Stern, a good government expert who authored the state law governing gifts to public officials, said the free flight may pose a legal problem for Vazquez.

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Vazquez did not return calls for comment.

There are exceptions to the gift limit that apply to travel under specific circumstances, such as a payment to the city for travel in connection with official city business, or sharing a plane ride with another public official for city business. But those exceptions don’t appear to apply in Vazquez’s case, Stern said.

Charter flight websites show that the cost of a private flight from Santa Monica to Salinas could start at $1,500. The state’s gift limit for public officials from any single source at the time was $460.

Vazquez also did not disclose the flight on his 2016 statement of economic interests, the financial disclosure form public officials are required to file annually.

Santa Monica spokeswoman Debbie Lee said the city found out about the flight after Landau replied to a letter asking him not to land his plane late at night.

“City staff was not aware that the alleged flight Council Member Vazquez took to Salinas was free,” she said.

Lee added that city officials are “assessing the situation and will make appropriate referrals as necessary.”

It’s unclear exactly why he flew to Salinas. But the Assn. of California School Administrators held its Superintendents’ Symposium the same day of the flight, according to a public schedule. Vazquez does work as a consultant for companies looking to do business with school districts.

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In an interview with The Times, Landau — an Emmy-award winning composer for TV shows like “Survivor” — said that he flew Vazquez to Salinas as a favor for his friend Robert Rowbotham, who served as the president of the nonprofit Friends of Santa Monica Airport. Rowbotham, also a pilot, had originally planned to fly Vazquez himself but had a scheduling conflict, Landau said.

Rowbotham owns Wilson and Valley Towing, which has billed the city more than $94,000 since 2014 for towing city vehicles, according to the spokeswoman.

Landau initially told The Times that Rowbotham paid for half the gas on the flight, but he then backtracked on this statement, noting it would violate Federal Aviation Administration rules. Rowbotham also denied paying for the gas.

“I’m going to say as I recall now, that no I was not reimbursed, this was just fun out of my pocket,” Landau said.

Rowbotham downplayed the free flight as a favor he would do for anybody, not just the mayor.

“I’ve known Tony Vazquez for many, many years and as a pilot I’d be happy to fly anyone around town,” Rowbotham said, before declining to comment further.

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A private jet comes in for a landing at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, which is scheduled to close at the end of 2028.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Flight records show Landau had a late-night flight back from Salinas on Jan. 26, 2016, that took about an hour and a half, and touched down at the Santa Monica Airport after 1 a.m. The city issued Landau a letter warning that the landing had violated the city’s voluntary airport curfew.

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The city of Santa Monica fought to shut down the general aviation airport — long a favorite of celebrities and business leaders — for years, contending it was unsafe, noisy and polluted nearby neighborhoods with potentially harmful aircraft exhaust.

The City Council ultimately voted in August of that year to close the city’s airport by July 2018. Federal officials said the city was required to keep the airport open for longer, and last year they struck a deal with the city to close the airport in 2028, ending years of litigation.

When he ran for reelection later that year, Vazquez called the vote to close the airport one of the best decisions the council made during the previous term.

As for Landau, he said the flight did not end up making a difference in the outcome of the vote, but he had no regrets.

“It was a pleasure trip for me,” the pilot said. “Unfortunately it didn’t sway [Vazquez’s] mindset about the airport. But it didn’t matter.”

Adam.Elmahrek@latimes.com

@adamelmahrek

Benjamin.Oreskes@latimes.com

@boreskes


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