Corruption is insidious, a viral infection that turns cancerous if ignored over time — and that’s what has happened to the city government of Los Angeles.
For decades, the city’s business and civic leadership has stood by with a wink and a nod and sometimes their active participation as developers, contractors, unions and other special interests bought the politicians with campaign cash and reaped fabulous profits on their investments in the form of sweetheart contracts, subsidies, tax breaks and other lucrative benefits.
Surely, no one was surprised when the little people emulated the behavior of the rich and powerful, people like building inspector Joel Dellon who got caught back in 1989 taking bribes and kickbacks worth at least $22,500.
What’s interesting is that Dellon got the same kid-glove treatment big shots have gotten — 11 felony counts of bribery, grand theft and tax evasion were reduced to two charges in a plea bargain with prosecutors. Case closed, no further investigation.
Yet, just seven years later, the head of the Building and Safety Commission, Scott Z. Adler, a lobbyist and major property developer, was forced to resign when he came under criminal investigation for a soliciting a teenage prostiture, impersonating a police officer and conflicts of interest in connection with his official position.
The next day it was disclosed that investigations had been under way “for several years” of a network of building inspectors suspected of taking bribes to approve substandard projects, and that one inspector had been arrested three months earlier.
Two days after resigning, Adler’s partner in their Bel Air lobbying firm, attorney Mark Armbruster, himself named head of the Environmental Affairs Commission by Mayor Riordan, terminated their business relationship that had proven so lucrative with $325,000 in city lobbying fees the previous year as well as useful to city politicians with the $21,000 in contributions from them.
Adler got off with community service on the sex charge and the uproar over lobbyists running commissions died down with tepid reforms and there was little fallout over the bribery problems in Building and Safety.
It was business as usual at City Hall,
Politicians continued to be brought for a penny on the dollar of favors they provided, especially to developers. Lobbyists like Armbruster today are raking in more money than ever. Building inspectors still are taking their piece of the action.
But one thing is different this time.
The FBI — not the LAPD, not the District Attorney — are on the case. A federal grand jury has been impaneled. Electronic surveillance is being used. The little guys at the bottom of the corrupt food chain are squealing.
We can only hope that somehow the Obama Justice Department will take this investigation as far as it leads, even it it leads to the top.
The word coming out of City Hall and out of law enforcement circles suggest it will be tough to close down this investigation with a few fall guys as the pay–to-play probe of the Hahn Administration was.
It’s not just Building and Safety that is under investigation. Planning, Transportation, Housing and possibly other departments also have been swept into the federal investigation.
Like corruption, investigations have a way of going viral. It’s the only way it can be stopped.
Make no mistake about it: Little people don’t steal unless they see the big shots stealing because those are the people they take their orders from.