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Part 28: The Politics of Corruption in Los Angeles City Hall – From Kevin De León to Curren Price


By Zachary Ellison. Twitter @ZacharyObama. Photo of Los Angeles City Hall. 
Reprint with permission

I was late to the Friday meeting of the Los Angeles City Council on a perfect early summer morning clearing security and heading into City Council Chamber just in time in my cardinal and gold University of Southern California long sleeve shirt to lock eyes with a comfortable looking Kevin De León still present having survived the political crisis of his life over racist audio leaks. As Kevin moved back to the room, the copy of Curren Price’s 10-county felony indictment for illegal conflict of interest, perjury, and the ominous sounding “GRAND THEFT BY EMBEZELLEMENT OF PUBLIC FUNDS” printed in all caps from the attorneys of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón freshly printed in my hands. As Council wrapped up its regular business, the real action was set for the  Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee that afternoon set for 1:00 pm.

Heading up the elevators I soon encountered the supporters of the feloniously indicted Councilmember from the “New Ninth” of the South Central part of Los Angeles that his group of supporters had come to boost. Undoubtedly, there’s still much love for the latest member of the LA City Council to run into legal trouble. Slipping into Curren Price’s office his supporters gathered in a small conference room prayed for the besieged Councilman just beginning his 3rd 4-year term having been re-elected after defeating challengers Dulce Vasquez and write-in candidate Adriana Cabrera the prior year June 7, 2022 outright in the primary.

After identifying myself as a journalist, I was soon asked, “Are you with the USC News?” All I could do was grin and say no, reassure the volunteer that I was merely observing the headquarter of activity inside Price’s City Hall Suite. Soon I was ushered to a slightly larger and awkwardly arranged conference room on the 4th floor of the building past the LAPD detail to await the meeting of the new reduced Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee now comprised of only 3 members after Price resigned his position as the #2 Council Pro Tem and his Committee assignments after the news broke.

The real question of the day was to be determined that afternoon, would the Rules Committee move forward a motion to suspend the embattled Price from office, which offered the already assured threat of a halt to his paychecks from LA Controller Kenneth Mejia. Seated on the floor with the other journalists on hand for the spectacle of government corruption yet again in Los Angeles we awaited the arrival of the remainder of the committee: Council President Paul Krekorian from the San Fernando Valley area, Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the neighboring 8th district in South Los Angeles, and the newly arrived Hugo Soto-Martínez elected only the November prior to represent the district including Hollywood.

Once the meeting began with public comment, a number of pastors supporting Price spoke and the message sent was clear, much of the African-American community in his district simply didn’t believe the news, that Price was corrupt. Now outside of Los Angeles such scenes in relation to former Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas have brought a degree of some ridicule from the media and critics who view such spectacles as emblematic of the machine politics of Los Angeles and its ethnically divided nature – Black, Brown, and White. The charges which include an assertion that at least in legal terms Price was a bigamist, married to two women legally at once, including his second wife Del Richardson a prominent real estate consultant for developers with her own firm is accused of engaging in corrupt activity along with housing developer Thomas Safran & Associates. None of this is particularly new information, in fact for years it’s been known that Price had these relationships and that his activities had drawn the scrutiny of authorities and media including and relation to the infamous FBI investigation that felled José Huizar and Mitch Englander after raunchy, dirty trips to Las Vegas to the benefit of a real estate developer as part of a kickback scheme.

By using their offices to their own benefit, politicians like Price allegedly, Huizar, and Englander have been able to enrich themselves by misusing their office to the detriment of their constituents and good government. Now Mark Ridley-Thomas was a different story. Ridley-Thomas was busted by the FBI for attempting to scheme with the Dean of the USC School of Social Work Marilyn Flynn, and has been convicted of his crimes in court, for which he is now attempting to secure a new trial. Politics in Los Angeles are a messy business as usual sort of deal, which many feel is quite hopeless, as Paul Krekorian would remind us at the end of the meeting, other cities have issues with their politicians and corruption too and we should look to them for model solutions. So the real question of the afternoon became whether Price to whom many of his constituents was in fact simply a model Councilmember doing actions that were being misconstrued as somehow criminal when in fact they were not, simply “administrative errors” that were “bogus” and required no rush for judgment. The matter will next be taken up on August 25, 2023 spelling a long summer of uncertainty for the Council and the 9th District.

Price’s former challenger Dulce Vasquez, an outsider has now moved on target the State Assembly seat for the area, but Adriana Cabrera still remains the President of the Central Alameda Neighborhood Council and was the sole person of the afternoon to speak in favor of suspending Curren Price from his seat and his ability to receive a paycheck and required almost a literal police escort to make it to the podium with boos following. One other gentleman would later speak broadly against the corruption while calling for a special election, which the Council cannot do so long as Price has been lawfully elected to hold the 9th District seat. In the end, the Rules Committee decided to push the decision on whether to advance the motion for suspension to their next meeting while deciding to do additional outreach in the district prior to a decision.

Council President Krekorian stated that the difference between the Huizar and Englander charges and this situation as the fact that no actual evidence has been presented yet unlike with the FBI investigations where a substantial amount of information was released in advance. Perhaps most interestingly Krekorian stated that he “hoped” that LA County DA George Gascón would have at least consulted him in advance of releasing news of Price’s felony indictment.

Overall, the afternoon was encouraging in that Price has without question managed to build community between both Black and Brown constituents in South Los Angeles. More than 8 months after the LA Fed recordings scandal that ensnared Kevin De León and felled former Council President Nury Martinez for their racist comments made with former Councilmember Gil Cedillo and the President of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles, Ron Herrera. The now infamous LA Fed scandal had created a situation in which as candidates in Martinez’s former district described lead to acoustic “hate crimes” just as Council was about to meet to discuss whether or not to suspend Ridley-Thomas almost a year prior on October 18, 2021 with Council voting the next day to exactly that action. Due to the work of his lawyers, Ridley-Thomas would later recover his entire paycheck as part of a settlement with the City of Los Angeles over the decision to suspend him from his elected seat.

Things look better this time as far as no back room meetings occurring that would be secretly, and illegally recorded for usage nearly a year later as part of the greatest still unsolved wiretapping mystery in the history of American politics. No joke, officially if you believe the media it’s still unknown who would want to bug a meeting of politicians inside a labor union headquarters for putative use as election interference. These things happen in Los Angeles people assure me. So it’s a testament that despite this incident of open race-baiting nominally on behalf of the cause of billionaire luxury real estate magnate Rick Caruso. The former Chairman of the Board of USC Trustees, the 9th District includes the famed university. Caruso would suffer defeat at the hands of current Mayor Karen Bass after De León faltered in the June Primary. Time has moved on though, even as the political effects of that scandal continue to unfold into the present matters as an administrative practice of setting precedent.

In the end, I think there’s little debate that moving slowly on suspending Price from his seat is legally wise from the perspective of the City Attorney’s Office. The last thing the LA City Council would want to do again was suspend a member under indictment only to have to pay him back for time served. That would be a disaster. I don’t know if Price is guilty or innocent, but I’ve sent in my records request and you have to wonder, why alone has Price been charged and not his alleged colluder Thomas Safran? Why not his wife Del Richardson as well? The alleged kickbacks Price and his wife are accused of orchestrating total over $160,000 in exchange for favorable votes on contracts on affordable housing projects funded by the public.

There’s one other scandal that loomed large in the meeting, that of Richard Alarcon who once held the 7th district seat in the San Fernando Valley. After being found guilty of lying about his residence, Alarcon was later acquitted of perjury and voter fraud charges. Current Council President Krekorian perhaps optimistically believes that this case with Curren Price approximates more the Alarcon scandal, than the Huizar and Englander, but it’s the unknown that remains most alarming. As Marqueece Harris-Dawson told journalist Alex Cohen of Spectrum News yesterday, he’s concerned that Black politicians from South Los Angeles are being “hunted.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but someone wiretapped the LA Fed meeting and then used it as a political weapon. Some remote callers had bemoaned that comment in the main council meeting earlier as racial politics, but in Los Angeles we’re actually trying to move beyond that dynamic, which really makes you wonder. Who wanted to change the course of Los Angeles political history? As the lone investigative journalist apparently on seen, I can only help but wonder who really makes the decisions, and it’s exactly like they say, don’t say something in private that you wouldn’t in public because your conference room just might be bugged.

The ability of Los Angeles City government to power through such a scandal as that was undoubtedly more challenged than this one. So we’ll see, is Curren guilty? Does Kevin De León plan on even trying to stick around? There’s no sign of that yet, but someone is clearly keeping tabs on the elected officials around here other than the journalists and all of the wonderful speakers in public comment. Despite one of the usual bigots on full display, the Rules Committee meeting of the afternoon was otherwise an exemplary practice of democracy in Los Angeles. It’s not that the Council is broken so much as the question of accountability, when, where and how that someone gets the axe has become suspect in a way that’s not normal. The District Attorney may not talk to the City Council, and in his limited comment so far George Gascón has given no explanation of his timing, but things sure to be amiss in a way that just might be unusual. Price after all was the alleged no show from the LA Fed meeting, the runner of the group.

As I heard one of Price’s supporters grumble about the Powers That Be, she thinks she knows just who it might be that’s deciding such political fates. I’m not sure it’s a singular, but the way that the palatial institutions of Los Angeles: the LA City Council, USC, the LAPD, and the paper of record, The Los Angeles Times that so often sets the tone as presented to the national media viewing public certainly does raise questions that we can only hope to answer with inquiry. The people deserve some answers, just where are the real criminals in Los Angeles?

The one thing that is beyond clear, and as one speaker explained, they know Paul Krekorian and he is a decent man, they know Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and they’re getting to know Hugo Soto-Martínez is that for justice to be credible, it has to be grounded in the community. Moving ahead of that even in an administrative process is guaranteed to bring up sentiments that politics in Los Angeles is influencing prosecutorial decisions. Many people automatically tend to dismiss such notions, but the truth is that the burden is on the District Attorney to show that the charges are just and founded. That burden of proof must be met for it to have legitimacy, to represent the best of government, otherwise political chaos can ensue.

I think Los Angeles can find its way out of these scandals, and in doing so lessen the Black and Brown political divide that a certain someone so surreptitiously sought to exploit last October to the political advantage of Rick Caruso. For all the talk yesterday of how Curren Price has made his district safer and better compared to the old days of South Central, one thing is for sure, there’s a whole lot of corruption happening in Los Angeles on all sides. Good people should ask difficult questions and come to the table, not finger point to no positive end for our politics.

Zachary Ellison is an Independent Journalist and Whistleblower in the Los Angeles area. Zach was most recently employed by the University of Southern California, Office of the Provost from October 2015 to August 2022 as an Executive Secretary and Administrative Assistant supporting the Vice Provost for Academic Operations and the Vice Provost and Senior Advisor to the Provost among others. Zach holds a Master’s in Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Policy and Planning from the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. While a student at USC, he worked for the USC Good Neighbors Campaign including on their newsletter distributed university-wide. Zach completed his B.A. in History at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon and was a writer, editor, and photographer for the Pasadena High School Chronicle. He was Barack Obama’s one-millionth online campaign contributor in 2008. Zach is a former AmeriCorps intern for Hawaii State Parks and worked for the City of Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation. He is a trained civil process server, and enjoys weekends in the great outdoors.

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