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Legal or not, L.A. developers should not get special breaks from city officials

Legal or not, L.A. developers should not get special breaks from city officials
Top of the Ticket cartoo (David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

The attention of most voters may be riveted on the vicious contest for president between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but it is worth remembering the famous words of former Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill that all politics is local. And, in the local politics of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times has uncovered disturbing evidence that suggests real estate developers may be getting favored treatment from city officials to whom they have made significant campaign donations.

The story by David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes detailed the way members of the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti bypassed the negative recommendations of the city planning department and the Planning Commission and approved a $72-million residential development in an area north of the Port of Los Angeles that is zoned for industrial use. The developer who successfully pushed to have the zoning and planning guidelines waived is Samuel Leung. The Times investigation tied Leung to more than 100 individuals who collectively donated more than $600,000 to the campaigns of local politicians, including the mayor and City Council members.

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Much of that money appears to have come from people of very modest means with negligible connections to politics. When interviewed by Times reporters, several could not say to whom they gave contributions and others did not remember giving money at all. These included a repairman from El Salvador in whose name $20,300 was donated to local candidates since 2008.

Leung got his development approved, but he could be in legal trouble if it is found he improperly used third parties to pass donations to politicians.

According to the Times report, "The fundraising effort is a case study in the myriad ways money can flow to City Hall when developers seek changes to local planning rules. The pattern of donations from unlikely sources, some of whom profess to have no knowledge of contributions made in their name, suggests an effort to bypass campaign finance laws designed to make political giving transparent to the public."

Money has been the prime source of corruption in politics since governments were first created. In Los Angeles, the situation is far better now than in the early decades of the 20th century when public officials could be bought outright by private interests working both inside and outside the law. There is a big difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution. But there is still one thing that even perfectly legal campaign cash can buy: access. Access buys influence and influence often leads to rules being bent and the donor getting what he is looking for.

If developers in L.A. are getting more access and influence than they deserve, and if the interests of the public are being undermined, it does not matter whether it is legal or not. It is still not right.

Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter

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