Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu, 4th District, introduced two motions on May 19 to establish a city office to investigate and enforce anti-corruption laws and reform how building projects are approved.
The motions came days after Ryu and other council members called for Councilman Jose Huizar, 14th District, to step down. Huizar is the focus of a federal anti-corruption probe. FBI agents raided Huizar’s home and offices in 2018, but he has not been charged with any crimes.
“Corruption is alive and well in City Hall. We need strict oversight and sweeping reform to root it out,” Ryu said. “The public has lost faith in their local government, and we need reform and stronger checks and balances to change the culture that has fostered pay-to-play politics in Los Angeles. While laws alone may not stop a crime, we must dismantle the system that gives City Council far too much influence over planning and land-use decisions.”
The motions build upon a 2019 ordinance initiated by Ryu that bans donations from developers to council members, as well as behested payments, for 12 months after projects are approved. Ryu also cited allegations of corruption that surfaced last week when federal authorities announced that a real estate development consultant agreed to plead guilty to charges in a bribery scheme involving an unnamed member of the Los Angeles City Council.
Councilman Paul Koretz, 5th District, seconded both motions.
“Every Angeleno deserves an honest, transparent and accountable City Hall, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that is the case,” Koretz said. “Corruption in any form is unacceptable and has no place in Los Angeles. Democratic government rests on the public’s trust and it is our duty to uphold that trust.”
One of Ryu’s motions will establish an Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency that will serve as an inspector general for the city of Los Angeles. The office, which would be staffed by independent auditors and investigators, will have the power to subpoena city documents, and compel testimony from city staff and elected officials.
Similar oversight offices have been established in Chicago and Philadelphia. The office will particularly focus on planning, land use and development, and construction approvals.
The second motion seeks to remove city council members’ power to override and rewrite land use decisions made by the Los Angeles Planning Commission. It seeks a charter amendment to be placed on the November ballot to eliminate Section 245 (e) from the City Charter, which allows the City Council to overrule the actions of planning commissions.
Though rarely used, even the threat of overruling a planning commission decision gives City Council members far too much leverage over building approvals, Ryu said. It also gives private developers an incentive to influence a council member’s actions in attempts to allow a project to move forward. The amendment will align the City Council’s oversight of planning commission decisions with the authority and process in place for all other city commissions, which is to allow a City Council vote in favor or against a ruling, or to return a matter back to a commission if necessary.
The motions follow the May 13 announcement by federal authorities that real estate development consultant George Chiang, 41, of Granada Hills, agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute. In court documents, Chiang admitted that he participated in a criminal enterprise led by a member of the Los Angeles City Council and involving individuals engaged in bribery and honest services fraud. The scheme was designed to enrich participants, conceal their activities from authorities and the public, and maintain and advance political power, authorities said.
In a separate case, real estate consultant Justin Jangwoo Kim, 53, a longtime resident of Hancock Park, pleaded guilty in March to helping arrange a $500,000 bribe to a council member in exchange for support for a development project.
Neither criminal case identified the council member involved, but descriptions in court documents of committee assignments held at the time by the individual point to Huizar.
Last Friday, Ryu and Councilmembers Joe Buscaino, Bob Blumenfield and Paul Krekorian called for Huizar to resign. Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez, 6th District, asked him to stop attending council meetings while the legal probe is ongoing.
Huizar did not resign but agreed to attend council meetings remotely moving forward. The details of how that will work have not been announced, as Huizar was previously relieved of his committee assignments and the council is currently meeting remotely because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
In addition to Huizar, federal authorities recently investigated and charged former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, 15th District. Englander agreed to plead guilty to a charge of scheming to falsify material facts in an investigation of payments and other gifts made to him and his staff by a Los Angeles businessman, including cash, hotel rooms and expensive meals in Las Vegas and Palm Springs. He is scheduled to formally enter his guilty plea on June 4.