A campaign finance reform motion that would ban certain developer contributions to elected officials and candidates was introduced by six Los Angeles City Council members Tuesday, reviving an initiative that was first brought forward two years ago but sputtered out.
The move comes amid a wide-ranging federal corruption and bribery investigation that appears to be related to real estate developments and which led the FBI to search City Councilman Jose Huizar’s offices and home in November.
“Campaign finance reform, including a ban on developer donations, is something I have been fighting for since I first ran for office,” said Councilman David Ryu, who co-introduced the motion. “Democracy dies when people lose faith in their elected officials. That is the risk we face, the longer we go without addressing this problem as systemic and worthy of reform.”
The City Council commonly grants special permission, or “spot zoning,” to developers who want to construct a building outside of an area’s zoning rules, and those developers also sometimes donate generously to the council or other elected officials.
The new motion would ban contributions to city elected officials and candidates for municipal office from “restricted developers” and their principals with projects currently or recently before the city.
“Restricted developers” would include property owners who have business with the city related to the property, including projects requiring approval or other action by city elected officials to allow the construction or addition of more than 4,000 square feet of residential floor area or 15,000 square feet of commercial floor area.
“Enacting developer contribution restrictions would improve the confidence of Los Angeles city residents and businesses, including developers, that discretionary approvals of development projects are made on the merits and without regard to campaign contributions,” the motion states.
Under the guidelines, developers would be restricted from making political contributions to city elected officials and candidates from the date the application for the property is filed until 12 months following the final resolution of the application.
The motion would also explore a ban on non-individual entity contributors.
When the original motion was introduced in January of 2017, four members — Ryu, Paul Krekorian, Joe Buscaino and Paul Koretz — co-introduced it. The new motion appears to have even more political support, with the same four members signing the motion along with Councilman Mike Bonin and Councilwoman Nury Martinez, and Council President Herb Wesson seconding.
The original motion expired, having never been heard by a committee.
The 2017 motion came about two months after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office opened a review of campaign contributions alleged to be linked to developer Samuel Leung’s $72 million apartment complex in Harbor Gateway. Donors identified in a Los Angeles Times investigation as having ties to Leung gave more than $600,000 to the city’s elected officials or independent committees associated with them.
Many of the donors were working-class residents, according to The Times. Some denied having made any contributions, and at least one woman said she had been reimbursed, which raised red flags about potential campaign finance law violations.
Leung was charged last year with one felony count each of conspiracy to commit campaign money laundering and offering to bribe a legislative body member. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The new motion comes on the heels of the FBI seeking evidence of possible bribery, extortion, money laundering and other crimes as part of a corruption investigation at City Hall focusing on huge real estate investments from Chinese companies.
Federal investigators have cast a wide net for information about foreign investment in Los Angeles real estate development, according to a search warrant filed in November 2018 that names an array of political and business figures. Although the warrant was filed in November, its details were first reported on Twitter on Saturday by Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Among those named in the warrant are executives of Chinese firms bankrolling two ambitious downtown projects that would result in three new towers on Figueroa Street. Investigators are also seeking records about L.A. development projects involving other foreign investors, including firms with large-scale downtown hotel and residential projects.
The warrant shows federal investigators are seeking records related to not only Huizar but also other City Hall officials, including Councilman Curren Price and current or former aides to Huizar, Council President Herb Wesson and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Until recently, Huizar headed the powerful council committee that vets development projects. although he was stripped of all his committee assignments by Wesson following the FBI searches. Price, in turn, heads a council committee focused on economic development, which reviews taxpayer subsidies offered by the city to hotel developers in and around downtown.
The warrant does not say the FBI has gathered evidence of criminal activity by any of the people or companies named in the document. No one has been arrested or charged in the investigation, and Huizar has not directly discussed the investigation in public or responded to questions about it. The federal investigation became public in November, when FBI agents descended on the home and offices of Huizar, who represents the vast majority of downtown.
The new motion would also direct the city attorney to provide recommendations for the application of similar restrictions to donations form developers requesting approvals from the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.