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Contractors Deny Any Contributions Plot

Four say they violated rules unwittingly by reimbursing employees for political donations.

November 26, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Four contractors said Tuesday that they unknowingly violated campaign finance rules but strongly denied being part of a criminal conspiracy to launder contributions to city politicians, as charged by a Los Angeles County grand jury.

Roofing contractor Jerry Hein said he did reimburse workers for contributions they made to city candidates, according to Harland Braun, his attorney.

"He told the D.A. when he was interviewed that he reimbursed his employees, but there was no conspiracy. He didn't know what he did was illegal," Braun said. Prosecutors "are taking something that is a misdemeanor or an infraction and raising it to a felony by charging there is a conspiracy."

Braun's account was echoed by three other contractors interviewed Tuesday. They were among 14 people indicted Monday for reimbursing workers who made political contributions, a misdemeanor, and conspiracy to evade limits on individual contributions, a felony.

Among those indicted was John Archibald, a vice president for millionaire Alan Casden's development firm. Archibald allegedly came up with the scheme to buy influence in City Hall.

As several contractors offered a hint of what their defense will be, Casden's controversial $100-million high-rise project in Westwood met a wave of renewed opposition after the indictments became public.

"There is a cloud over it," said Dennis Zine, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, which ultimately will decide the fate of Palazzo Westwood. "How do we go forward with the project when the D.A. has issued an indictment and there are questions? We need to hold it up and evaluate it before we take any further action."

One neighborhood opponent, Tom Metcalfe, president of the Westwood Homeowners Assn., said it is "absolutely out of the question that it will be built."

Records of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission show that the indicted contractors, their relatives and their firms, as well as Casden employees, contributed a combined $109,000 in 2000 and 2001 to mayoral candidate Kathleen Connell, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and council members Wendy Greuel and Jack Weiss.

Weiss, who represents Westwood, moved quickly to announce his opposition to Casden's project. He had not earlier taken a position, and his shift was influential.

"When a council member signals opposition this early, it can make it very difficult," Councilman Eric Garcetti said.

Councilmen Ed Reyes, who heads the Planning Committee, and Tom LaBonge said they tend to defer to council colleagues on matters involving their districts.

"It is a concern," Reyes said. "If the integrity of the process is being questioned, that has to be looked at."

Casden is seeking permission for 350 apartment units in buildings up to 82 feet tall. Existing zoning would limit Casden to 55 feet and fewer than 250 units.

The project would consist of two five-story buildings at the southwest corner of Weyburn and Tiverton avenues. It also would include 115,000 square feet of stores and restaurants.

Opponents, who have put up lawn signs throughout Westwood with the message, "Jack Weiss Stop Casden," say traffic and parking would suffer.

Casden's proposal has yet to be considered by the city Planning Commission or the council.

Homeowner leaders who had opposed the Casden project as too large said that, until Monday, they believed the development would be approved with minor changes sought by Weiss.

"The tide has dramatically turned in the last two days," said Laura Lake, president of the group Friends of Westwood.

Casden, who has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing, plans to press ahead with the project, according to spokeswoman Barbara Casey.

"Definitely, Casden Properties is planning to go ahead with Palazzo Westwood. It's a really exceptional project and there is a great need for multifamily housing in Los Angeles," she said.

Although the City Council rarely opposes the representative of the district in which development is proposed, Casey said Casden is not discouraged by Weiss' opposition.

"I'm sure we'd rather have his vote, but there are 15 council people," she added.

Opponents of the development said they were disappointed that Weiss did not identify flaws in the project, rather than the indictments, as reasons for his opposition.

"I think he wants to separate himself from any affiliation with Alan Casden, because he wants to be reelected," Metcalfe said.

Neither Weiss nor any of the other recipients of the tainted contributions is suspected of any wrongdoing, according to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. Cooley said Casden is a target of the investigation.

Several of the indicted subcontractors said Tuesday that Cooley's office unfairly filed criminal conspiracy charges in a case in which defendants admitted individually violating campaign finance rules. Each defendant contacted denied being reimbursed by the Casden firm, and denied that he or she was coerced or promised favors for contributing to candidates.

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