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Airing Out a City Hall Stink

March 10, 2004

Leave it to Tutor-Saliba Corp. to make the otherwise abstract ethics investigations swirling around Los Angeles City Hall a little more, well, concrete. City building inspectors recently shut down work on the Van Nuys Flyaway expansion until the construction giant replaces substandard concrete and fixes misaligned columns on parking structures.

Sound familiar? In the 1990s, Tutor-Saliba tried to get away with installing less concrete than required in parts of the Metro Red Line tunnel. Subsequent delays and cost overruns so outraged taxpayers they vetoed local funding for future subways.

Why then did the city Airport Commission last year choose Tutor-Saliba for the $33-million overhaul of the flyaway terminal, the busy park-and-ride facility for Los Angeles International Airport? That's the type of question the Los Angeles County Grand Jury is asking as it looks into whether city commissioners and aides to Mayor James K. Hahn engaged in "pay to play" politics, illegally requiring contractors to make political contributions in return for city business.

Tutor-Saliba was just one of a number of campaign contributors awarded lucrative contracts by the Airport Commission, whose five members the mayor appoints. Company President Ronald N. Tutor, his employees and their spouses spent more than $214,000 on Hahn's 2001 election campaign and the 2002 Hahn-led campaign against San Fernando Valley secession.

Hahn denies any connection and defends Airport Commission President Ted Stein and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, who testified before the grand jury. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley declines to name the firms or individuals under investigation. But Cooley makes clear that whether or not the grand jury issues indictments, it is uncovering a culture of "heavy-handed political fundraising that stinks."

Hahn, who faces reelection next year, is trying to dispel the smell. Weeks after saying no such ordinance was needed, he gave City Hall watchers whiplash by signing a new law banning campaign fundraising by appointed citizen commissioners who oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts.

The City Council approved the ordinance in record time, but don't pass out medals just yet. Police Commissioner David Cunningham said one council member, whom he would not identify, asked him to hold a fundraiser before the law went into effect April 11. The stink isn't gone yet.

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