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California

Politicians and activists demand answers on mystery donations tied to ‘Sea Breeze’ developer

Several donors told The Times they did not remember giving U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn contributions, even though they are on record as doing so.

Two Los Angeles-area elected officials and several neighborhood activists called Sunday for an investigation into campaign donations made by people with ties to a developer who secured City Hall approval for a controversial 352-unit apartment complex last year.

The Times reported that dozens of donors with direct or indirect connections to real estate developer Samuel Leung gave more than $600,000 to L.A.-area politicians as his $72-million project was being reviewed. Of those who donated, 11 told The Times they did not give or do not remember doing so — raising questions about whether they were the true source of the money.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino said the city’s Ethics Commission should investigate whether donors were reimbursed — a practice that would violate city, state or federal laws, depending on the campaign. He also promised to give back “any funds that are found to be inappropriate.”

Full Story: A $72-million apartment project. Top politicians. Unlikely donors.

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Buscaino, whose district includes the development site, championed Leung’s project and received at least $94,700 from donors directly and indirectly connected with the developer.

Neither Leung nor his representative at City Hall responded to requests for comment. His project, known as Sea Breeze, is now under construction in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

Donors with ties to Leung supported several politicians between 2008 and 2015, including several council members and an independent committee that backed Mayor Eric Garcetti. Many of the contributions were reported on the same day, in the same amounts and for the same politicians, records show.

Several donors  said they could not recall basic information about their contributions, including why they gave and to whom. One donor told The Times she was reimbursed for at least one donation, a practice that is not permitted under the city’s ethics law.

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The Times’ findings also emerged as an issue Sunday in the race to replace retiring L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe in the Nov. 8 election. U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, who is running for Knabe’s seat, represented Harbor Gateway while serving on the Los Angeles City Council and received at least $203,500 from donors connected to Leung.

Several donors told The Times they did not remember giving Hahn contributions, even though they are on record as doing so. Hahn wrote a letter favorable to Leung’s project in 2011, in one of her last acts while she was on the City Council.

Former Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano, Hahn’s opponent, said the district attorney and possibly federal investigators should probe the fundraising activity.

“It’s just another example of Janice Hahn’s pattern of pay-to-play politics where she sells her vote to the highest bidder and sells out her community,” he said.

Hahn spokesman John Shallman said his client also supports an investigation and was already off the council when Sea Breeze was approved. Hahn, he said, had no way of knowing whether donors might have been reimbursed.

“There were obviously no red flags with respect to the contributions,” he said.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s office declined to comment Sunday.

Sea Breeze is going up in a location previously zoned by the city for industrial businesses. The project was originally opposed by the Department of City Planning’s professional staff, who argued that such manufacturing sites should not be converted to residential uses, and unanimously rejected by the Planning Commission. 

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Garcetti and the council reversed the commission’s decision and approved the project in 2015. Two years earlier, donors connected to Leung gave $60,000 to a pro-Garcetti campaign committee. 

Connie Llanos, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said that “if someone clearly paid for another person’s donation,” it should be investigated by the authorities.

For years, Sea Breeze has drawn opposition from residents of Harbor City, a neighborhood of Los Angeles just south of the project site.

Harbor City resident Tom Houston said he could not figure out why Buscaino and his colleagues were so willing to disregard the view of his local neighborhood council, which took a position against it. He now believes “without a doubt” that the political contributions played a role.

“These developers are paying for votes for their projects, and that’s not right,” said Houston, a former president of the Harbor City Neighborhood Council.

Critics have long accused city leaders of being too willing to change local planning rules for well-connected developers, particularly those who make campaign donations. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a measure on L.A.’s March ballot, would impose a two-year moratorium on developments that require changes to key planning rules on things like zoning, height and density. 

Jill Stewart, the campaign director for that measure, said the district attorney or the state attorney general should investigate the donations. 

“We need to know whether L.A. city officials are selling their votes,” she said. “Every city needs housing. Most cities don’t go corrupt in order to do it.”

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Harbor City neighborhood activist Olive Reed said she was “absolutely stunned” by the amount of money that flowed to council members from people connected to Sea Breeze’s developer.

Reed, who testified against Sea Breeze in 2014, said she too wants the City Ethics Commission to probe the donations. She also voiced alarm that Buscaino accepted so many contributions from people with ties to Leung while Sea Breeze was being evaluated.

“I’m really sad and disappointed, because I did expect more from Joe,” she said.

alice.walton@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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