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Editorial: Just how dirty is L.A. City Hall?

Los Angeles City Hall.
(Los Angeles Times)

Just how dirty is Los Angeles City Hall?

The guilty pleas are piling up in the ongoing federal pay-to-play corruption investigation. Already, former City Councilman Mitch Englander has admitted to taking envelopes of cash and other gifts from a businessman who wanted to do more work in the city. Then a political fundraiser admitted to helping a real estate developer pay off another council member — presumably Councilman Jose Huizar, based on the descriptions in court documents — to clear the way for a major project.

And now a consultant has admitted to being part of a scheme to bribe a councilman — again, presumably Huizar — with cash, political contributions, concert and sports tickets and other gifts.

Huizar hasn’t been named by prosecutors, but the details in the court filings make clear he is at the heart of the federal City Hall investigation. His home and office were raided by the FBI in November 2018. Huizar hasn’t been charged, but on Thursday, Council President Nury Martinez moved to suspend him from the council, which would block him from attending meetings or voting on city matters.

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These recent cases paint a horrifying picture of how business is conducted in the city, with charges of bribery, racketeering and other illicit schemes orchestrated by city officials with businessmen trying to buy special treatment.

And you know what’s really galling? Until this week, there was barely a peep of concern from city leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Martinez and their colleagues. Only two council members, Bob Blumenfield and David Ryu, put out statements lamenting the corruption charges.

Where was the shock? The outrage? Where was the righteous indignation that the government they represented had been tarnished? Or the embarrassment that the soft corruption of political contributions from favor-seeking individuals had transformed into raw bribery complete with bags of cash?

If these were normal times, not a pandemic, the plea deals would have rocked City Hall and put its leaders on the defensive. But the all-consuming focus on COVID-19 has allowed them to push the pay-to-play scandal to the side and avoid confronting the systematic problems that enable corruption.

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

That concentration of power leads developers and other business interests to woo council members. Usually people curry favor with campaign contributions or donations to a politician’s favorite charity. In some cases, apparently, businesses will resort to bribes and other illegal means to try to get what they want.

Ultimately, Los Angeles has to fundamentally change how real estate developments are approved and land-use decisions are made. That won’t end corruption; there will always be some elected officials who abuse their power and some business people who think they can bribe their way to approval. But clear rules for officials and developers and transparent decision-making are obvious, necessary and overdue steps toward a cleaner City Hall.


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