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Fundraiser Linked to Wong Is Canceled

Villaraigosa cites the ongoing investigation of the City Hall insider.

September 25, 2004|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa abruptly canceled a campaign fundraiser last week after learning that the event's co-host was Leland Wong, a former city commissioner whose political activities are being scrutinized by local and federal investigators.

"It was inappropriate," Villaraigosa said, to have Wong co-host the event when he is under investigation by the U.S. attorney and the district attorney. "The truth is, if he would have been a part of it, it would have detracted from the event."

The fundraiser was to have been held the evening of Sept. 16 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The invitation lists the Bonaventure's owner, Peter Zen, and Panda Restaurant Group Chairman Andrew Cherng as hosts of the event. Wong is listed on a separate line as a co-host.

Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles city councilman, said he asked Cherng and Zen to put together the fundraiser. But, he said, "when we found out that Leland Wong's name was on it, we canceled it."

Zen's assistant, Carmel Fu, said the fundraiser was canceled on orders from Zen and the campaign. Tickets to the reception in the hotel's 12th floor Tsubaki Lounge were priced from $250 to $1,000 per person.

Wong, a prolific campaign fundraiser and longtime behind-the-scenes figure in Los Angeles politics, resigned last January as vice president of the city's Board of Water and Power Commissioners and as director of governmental affairs for Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser officials asked for Wong's resignation after an internal investigation found that he had misused the HMO's funds for political purposes. The internal inquiry determined that Wong had spent Kaiser's funds improperly by using its staff to organize at least three political fundraisers.

Wong also gave tickets to cultural and sporting events to city officials in violation of the city's $100 per-person limit on such gifts. When he resigned, Wong said he was unaware of the limit.

He is now chairman of a new bank in the San Gabriel Valley.

Jim Anderson, spokesman for Kaiser Permanente, said the healthcare company has been contacted by investigators for the city's Ethics Commission, the district attorney and the U.S. attorney's office. "We've been cooperating with them," he said.

Joe Scott, spokesman for the district attorney's office, and Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on the investigations.

Wong's attorney, David C. Scheper, said his client had "absolutely no comment" on his role in the Villaraigosa fundraiser or on the continuing investigations.

Federal prosecutors looking into possible corruption in city contracting have subpoenaed extensive records from the city's airport, harbor, and Water and Power departments, as well as e-mails from Mayor James K. Hahn and his top aides.

Hahn named Wong a Water and Power commissioner in March 2003. Wong had served as one of the mayor's appointees to the commission that oversees LAX, Ontario, Van Nuys and Palmdale airports.

Wong, Zen and Cherng accompanied Hahn on his first trip to the Far East, which included representatives from a number of companies that contributed to the mayor's campaign or his effort to defeat a move for the San Fernando Valley to break away from the city.

A number of Hahn administration officials have resigned this year amid the investigations, including Wong; Troy Edwards, a deputy mayor who oversaw the airport, port and the Department of Water and Power; and Ted Stein, president of the airport commission.

Villaraigosa, who is running against Hahn for the second time, has been an outspoken critic of Hahn's administration, saying he is troubled by allegations that campaign contributions may have influenced the awarding of city contracts.

"While one cannot make categorical statements about pay-to-play, there is certainly an appearance of impropriety here where so many jurisdictions are investigating fraud and corruption," he said.

Parke Skelton, Villaraigosa's campaign consultant, said the fundraiser was canceled about a week before the event.

Three checks that were identified as being related to the event were returned to the donors with a letter, Skelton said.

"Where people have been identified as being under investigation," Villaraigosa said, "it is unfair to them and the campaign to take those funds."

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