The Magazine

They're No Angels

Los Angeles's pay-to-play politics.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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Los Angeles

EARLY ONE MORNING in April, Los Angeles commuters on the Hollywood Freeway thought their prayers had been answered. On the radio, Mayor James Hahn was promising to eliminate traffic congestion on the main highway that runs from downtown to the San Fernando Valley. "Tomorrow we'll be beginning construction on a $5 billion remake of the 101 Freeway," he chirped. "The only problem for commuters is we will have to be shutting down all lanes in both directions on the freeway for the next 12 months."

Hahn waited a beat, and then admitted that his fleeting promise of orderly transportation was just a joke. "April fools!"

Tall, slim, and handsome, James Hahn, 53, could play a mayor on TV if he weren't one in real life. The son of a South Los Angeles pol beloved for opening municipal government jobs to blacks, Hahn rode his pedigree, prior service as city attorney, and unswerving loyalty to the Democratic party to City Hall three years ago. At his inauguration Hahn vowed to create a service-oriented, user-friendly city attuned to the needs of its neighborhoods. Today, however, Hahn's administration is in shambles. A month seldom passes when the city controller doesn't discover some new instance of fiscal mismanagement in L.A.'s wildly politicized departments, all monitored by 350 commissioners handpicked by Hahn and the City Council. The U.S. attorney, the L.A. district attorney, and a local grand jury all are investigating the city's opaque procedures for awarding municipal contracts. Four deputy mayors already have resigned, along with several tainted commissioners. Those still connected to City Hall recently learned that all their emails relating to city contracts are being subpoenaed.

The federal and county investigations are both focusing on the appointed commissioners overseeing the city's airports, the harbor, and water and power, three enormous municipal monopolies that collectively account for more than $3.5 billion in annual revenue. At issue is whether the building contractors, political consultants, union bosses, and property developers often appointed as commissioners have turned the process of civilian oversight into a "pay-to-play" shell game where campaign contributions and unsolicited gift-giving are unspoken prerequisites to doing business with the city.

"L.A. basically is a clean city, but its tolerance for corruption is increasing," says City Controller Laura Chick, a self-proclaimed "truth-teller" who gets ready for work by listening to skirling bagpipes on her car stereo. "We have an environment ripe for fraud." Chick's performance reviews of city departments have shown a pattern of waste among commissioners. The pattern extends from the Department of Water and Power--which signed a $3 million contract with a politically connected public relations firm, despite already having a $13 million in-house publicity staff--to Van Nuys airport, which has lost more than $15 million since 1990 by failing to renegotiate leases to reflect fair market value.

The first woman ever elected to citywide office in Los Angeles, Chick often rails against the "sexist, good-old-boys work environment" at City Hall that has produced "an arrogance in city government that's so thick you could cut it with a knife." To get her point across she created an "Ethics Brigade" of community activists ready to testify at public hearings at a moment's notice. Two months ago, the brigade scored a major triumph when it forced an embarrassed City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting future city commissioners from soliciting campaign contributions. The mayor's office was quick to make its irritation known. A few days after testifying in favor of the ordinance, Bonny Herman, who represents the San Fernando Valley on the Metropolitan Water District's board of directors, was summarily dismissed. Says Herman: "I was doing a fabulous job, but now I'm gone and the 1.8 million people of the San Fernando Valley have no representation on the MWD."

The idea of city commissions headed by irreproachable community leaders was introduced to Los Angeles almost a century ago by progressive reformers from the Midwest who believed civilian oversight of politicians and bureaucrats would insure independent, nonpartisan government. With the exception of a few decades colorfully recounted by James Ellroy, the system largely worked until the arrival of Hahn. "A mayor can appoint independent thinkers or robots to serve on city commissions," says David Fleming, a former member of the city's Ethics Commission who is now executive director of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. "This mayor prefers robots."