It was nearly 25 years ago that then state Attorney General, John Van de Kamp, told me the politicians had written California’s public corruption laws in such a way that only a politician stupid enough to stand up in public — or get caught on camera _ and admit he took money and did favors could be convicted of a crime.
The politicial culture of L.A. has thrived on that carefully sculpted loophole for years, Our elected officials give access to special interests they don’t give the general public, do favors that sometimes are worth tens of millions of dollars and sell out the public interest for contributions to their campaigns and officeholder accounts — if nothing else.
L.A. is corrupt in a way and on a scale that goes far beyond what goes on in Chicago or New York where politicians often go to jail but the system works to make those cities better — not worse.
A prime example was back in the news today in the L.A. Times where Ted Rohrlich followed up on the long-running scandal involving well-connected developer Chris Hammond and the Santa Barbara Plaza project near Baldwin Hills.
The plaza was a rundown center with 20 shops and Hammond — with the generous help of Mayor James Hahn — put together a plan for a $123 million redevelopment called Marlton Square. It was to be a housing and retail project with $43 million in public subsidies.
The Daily News exposed the shenanigans in an an article by Harrison Sheppard which discussed Hahn’s hope to win votes in South Los Angeles with his no-questions-asked support.
Even by that time, Hammond had bundled tens of thousands of dollars into politicians’ coffers despite a record of bouncing checks on his own accounts. He had close ties to most of the area’s black politicians, including Herb Wesson, Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas among others.
Because Hammond had such strong political support, the project got approved even though there was critical news coverage, a critical audit and criticism from the city’s watchdog, Controller Laura Chick.
Insiders say Hammond was smooth and made big committments to campaigns and nonprofits, and even his bad checks. never stopped fundraisers from putting him high on their lists of targets for money.
Hammond’s story is the story of how City Hall works, or rather doesn’t work for the benefit of the city.
Hammond bought influence, the politicians gave him what he wanted, which was public money and Santa Barbara Plaza is just the way it was years ago — except even more run down, a cancer in the community.
Did Hammond get in trouble wth the law? No.
Did any of the politicians who did him favors for money for their campaigns. No.
Were crimes committed? No.
Is this corruption? Yes.
And it is still going on every day. Follow the money and you will see how and why your elected officials aren’t serving you and why they back projects that are bad for your community and why they are constantly taking more money from you and why L.A. keeps getting worse.
Give me some out-and-out quid-pro-quo bribery like they get in Chicago and New York. and I’d give you some politicians in jail and a city that works.