Editorial: L.A. needs to finally put an end to the pay-to-play mentality at City Hall

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 7, 2018 - - FBI Special Assistant Agent David G. Nanz enters the office o
A FBI agent enters the office of City Councilman Jose Huizar at Los Angeles City Hall on November 7, 2018.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

If November’s FBI raid on Councilman Jose Huizar’s home and offices didn’t shock or scare Los Angeles’ city leaders into finally addressing issues of corruption and reform in City Hall, perhaps the news that emerged over the weekend will.

In stories Saturday and Monday, The Times reported that the ongoing investigation into Huizar is, in fact, part of a larger corruption probe seeking information from multiple City Hall insiders, including current and former members of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration, Councilman Curren Price and a senior aide to Council President Herb Wesson.

According to details laid out in a federal search warrant, agents were seeking evidence related to an investigation into an array of potential crimes, including bribery, kickbacks, extortion, and money laundering. They are apparently focusing on real estate development downtown, particularly several high-rise projects bankrolled by foreign investors. In addition to the city officials, the warrant names several executives of Chinese firms, and seeks records relating to their hotels and other developments.

How can anyone who has followed City Hall politics and development be surprised that there’s a corruption investigation underway?

It’s not clear what exactly the FBI is looking for or whether the agency suspects criminal activity by the individuals named in the warrant. No one has been arrested or charged.

Yet, how can anyone who has followed City Hall politics and development be surprised that there’s a corruption investigation underway?

The unwritten understanding in Los Angeles is that City Council districts are like fiefdoms, over which council members have sole discretion to make real estate development decisions, including whether a project gets an exemption from zoning and land-use rules, or whether it should be granted a tax break.

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That concentration of power leads, unsurprisingly, to campaign contributions from those hoping to curry favor. Presumably, donors believe the money will help them get projects approved, or favorable policies adopted. Elected officials routinely solicit contributions to their reelection campaigns or to their favorite charities from companies and individuals with business in the city.

Even if laws are not being broken, the whiff of corruption is unavoidable. And the FBI apparently believes that it could be more than just a whiff.

Ethics reform needs to be addressed head-on. For starters, city leaders could get moving on a stalled proposal to ban campaign contributions from real estate developers seeking city approval for their projects.

Ultimately, Los Angeles has to fundamentally change how real estate developments are approved and land-use decisions are made. The city needs clear rules for officials and developers, and it needs modern land-use plans that allow developers to build housing and commercial projects to meet the city’s need for homes and jobs. Deep-pocketed real estate investors should not be able to buy special treatment.

It’s time for Los Angeles leaders to put an end to the pay-to-play mentality once and for all.

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