Skip to comments.CA: Corruption probes taint LA mayor's re-election bid
Posted on 02/26/2005 11:47:04 AM PST by NormsRevenge
LOS ANGELES (AP) - In a city more accustomed to scandals in Hollywood than City Hall, claims of public corruption and fraud are dogging the re-election campaign of decidedly low-profile Mayor James Hahn.
County prosecutors have been probing allegations that Hahn supporters shook down firms which wanted to do business with the city by tying public contracts to political contributions. Federal prosecutors have opened their own inquiry.
Although Hahn has not been implicated and denies knowledge of any potential wrongdoing, the investigations touch whole segments of city government - from members of Hahn's inner circle to Los Angeles International Airport and the water and power department. With prosecutors issuing subpoenas for Hahn's office e-mails and summoning some of his aides before grand juries, the investigations are proving popular with his challengers.
"He's the pinata. The question is the whether the pinata will survive," said Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Santa Monica.
Some former Hahn supporters have withdrawn their support and critics cast his administration as the most corrupt since a scandal-plagued mayor was recalled nearly 70 years ago.
"It's more than a scandal. It's crippled his administration," said Councilman Bernard Parks, a former police chief whose ouster Hahn backed and who is one of four main challengers in the March 8 primary.
The low-key Hahn has been reminding voters of his reputation for integrity, developed over a long career as the son of a venerated county supervisor. No city official has been charged - though several have resigned.
"There's no factual basis for any of these charges," said Hahn's campaign consultant Kam Kuwata. "It's always rhetoric and hot air."
The accusations do appear to be having some impact.
More than a third of respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll said Hahn lacks the honesty and integrity to be mayor. The poll also said that none of the five candidates, Democrats all, appears to have the majority support needed to avoid a May 17 runoff.
The probes accelerated following an audit by the city controller, that reported shoddy records and meddling by political appointees in initial screening of airport contracts gave the appearance of conflicts of interest and abuse. Separate audits criticized the secretive process by which the harbor department awarded leases and accused a publicity firm of overcharging the city's water and power agency by millions of dollars.
Local and federal prosecutors largely have refused to discuss the probes, though some details have surfaced over the last two years:
-The wide-ranging federal probe yielded an indictment last month, against an executive at the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm which had millions of dollars in contracts with City Hall. John Stodder has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of wire fraud in an alleged scheme to overbill the city's Department of Water and Power by $250,000. City Controller Laura Chick, one of several high-profile city officials who withdrew support for Hahn, said the mayor was using the firm's contract with the agency to burnish his own image.
-In December 2003, Chick announced she had turned over to law enforcement agencies evidence of "potential illegal acts" uncovered during an audit of contracting at the airports department, a huge agency with an $867 million annual budget. Chick singled out the department's practice of letting politically appointed city commissioners review and recommend millions of dollars worth of contracts they later voted on. She later singled out the selection process of a $930,000 consulting contract as possibly tainted by fraud, saying there weren't records to fully explain why one firm won it over another that had been recommended by department staff.
Later, Airport Commission President and Hahn fund-raiser Theodore Stein resigned following reports that he suggested an engineering firm might lose future contracts because it wouldn't donate $100,000 to the mayor's 2002 campaign against San Fernando Valley secession. Stein dismissed the firm's accusations as "unfounded" and "malicious."
-Hahn's liaison to departments whose contracts have come under scrutiny resigned. Hahn said the departure of Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, previously finance chairman for the mayor's 2001 campaign, was unrelated to the probes. Edwards has testified before a county grand jury looking into contracts.
-As Hahn's administration drew the attention of prosecutors, so did major fund-raisers. In a case not connected to the contract probes, a prominent lawyer was charged last May with reimbursing contributors to Hahn's 2001 campaign. A real estate developer also was fined $270,000 by a city ethics panel that found he laundered campaign donations to Hahn and others.
The City Council responded last year with a ban against fund-raising by city commissioners. Though he first opposed the measure, Hahn switched his stance and proposed another reform that would bar city contractors from making political donations.
In cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, where political machines have bred graft and corruption, the accusations of a "pay-to-play" policy on some public contracts might sound like business as usual. In Los Angeles, such allegations are far more rare. The last major uproar came in 1989 over then-Mayor Tom Bradley's consulting fees from a bank with city business. Bradley was never charged.
Now, voters will decide whether allegations of corruption should weigh on their vote more than public safety, city finances and other issues.
"It does damage the city's reputation," said Xandra Kayden, senior fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Affairs. "This isn't Tammany Hall corruption, but it's a major loss of credibility."