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City Funds Flow to Check-Bouncing Developer

Mayor, others say the parks commissioner's projects are vital to the revival of South L.A.

June 14, 2004|Ted Rohrlich and Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles parks Commissioner Christopher Hammond is no ordinary deadbeat.

He's bounced a campaign check to the mayor. He's bounced campaign checks to six members of the City Council. Hammond, a leading developer of subsidized housing, has even bounced checks to the city attorney, the official responsible for prosecuting people who bounce checks.

Remarkably, this has done little if anything to harm his relations with the elected officials he relies on to approve subsidies for his projects.

Despite the bounced checks, a trail of angry business creditors and the more than $500,000 he owes in back federal and state taxes, Hammond's business entities have received substantial government subsidies over the last few years and stand to receive, in partnerships with other firms, an additional $31 million for redevelopment of Santa Barbara Plaza, a decrepit shopping center in South Los Angeles.

Hammond is notorious in political circles, having bounced nearly two dozen campaign checks to Los Angeles politicians over the past five years. Accountant David Gould, a campaign treasurer for the mayor and other politicians, said he did not need to consult records when asked about a specific Hammond check.

"It bounced," Gould said. "I don't need to look it up. We know that when we get his checks they go that way 90% of the time."

Hammond has also bounced checks to contractors working on his homes and for his business. He is in default on mortgages for his two homes. His landlord has taken him to court for an alleged failure to pay rent on his corporate offices. He has bounced checks to settle lawsuits over bad debts. He has even reneged on a charitable donation to the American Heart Assn.

Hammond is counting on the Santa Barbara Plaza deal, his second publicly subsidized commercial project, to vault him into the ranks of major commercial builders.

Hammond has been a consultant or developer on nearly 40 affordable housing projects in South Los Angeles, more than anyone else in that part of the city. The publicly subsidized projects are occupied and, by most accounts, running well.

There is no evidence that Hammond has ever misspent government funds provided for those projects.

But his difficulties in making good on his corporate debts have triggered litigation and complicated both of his commercial projects.

Hammond's personal and corporate creditworthiness also bears on his fitness for public work, raising questions about whether city government has taken a close enough look at his financial practices before awarding subsidies to his projects.

He has substantial community support. The local heads of the NAACP and Urban League urged the City Council to fund Hammond's deal to redevelop Santa Barbara Plaza.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry said, "He's one of the few developers who has been ... capable of coming to South Los Angeles to develop projects that transform and create a quality of life you might expect in other parts of the city."

In a series of interviews, Hammond acknowledged that he has sometimes acted irresponsibly, writing checks without being certain there was money to cover them. But he said he never intended to cheat anyone.

Hammond also asserted that he had put such conduct behind him. "It's a mind-set change," he said. "It's called growing up."

Hammond said he received a loan last week from an unnamed individual that would make it possible for him to pay off "all tax obligations, mortgages as well as any outstanding minor litigation" by Friday.

Records show that he and his principal company, Capital Vision Equities, owe the federal and state governments back taxes for nine of the last 15 years. Their bill: $521,222.

As of last week, he was in default on mortgages for both of his houses, in Malibu and Los Feliz. His landlord moved last month to evict him from his offices in a Victorian house in the West Adams district for failure to pay more than seven months rent, totaling $33,000. Hammond said the landlord owes him money for $50,000 in improvements. Hammond, 48, said he has a personal net worth of $10 million. He said Capital Vision Equities is also worth more than $10 million and that three other entities in which he is a principal are "all in good financial health."

Nonetheless, a review of court and campaign records and interviews by The Times turned up three dozen instances in which he or his companies bounced checks from 1999 through 2003 totaling more than $200,000. A majority of those were written in 2001, when Hammond said he became overextended.

Three times, Hammond agreed to settle lawsuits over bad debts, only to bounce the settlement checks.

One case involved his failure to pay $18,500 to a man whose liquor store he acquired while assembling land for his first publicly subsidized commercial development, a shopping center called Chesterfield Square that is anchored by a Home Depot store at Western and Slauson avenues in South Los Angeles.

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