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City Atty. Allegedly Failed to Act on Rent Law

Housing agency says many cases expired in prosecutor's possession. Delgadillo aide contends some were resolved and others lacked proof.

November 29, 2005|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The head of the Los Angeles Housing Department complained in a letter released Monday that City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office failed to file criminal or civil actions in 275 rent-control cases, despite evidence that the ordinance was violated.

Delgadillo's chief deputy responded that some of the cases submitted by the Housing Department were resolved in internal hearings and others were so sloppy and incomplete that prosecutors could not prove criminal wrongdoing.

The cases, which date from the last seven years, represent the majority of about 350 cases that the Housing Department referred to the city attorney's office for prosecution.

Mercedes Marquez, the Housing Department chief, wrote in the letter to Delgadillo that her office received eight boxes of cases from his office last month "without a cover letter or any documentation suggesting what we were receiving."

Many of the cases involved allegations developed by the Housing Department that landlords engaged in unlawful evictions or illegally raised rents on tenants in rent-controlled buildings.

In more than 200 of the cases, the one-year statute of limitations expired while the cases were in possession of the city attorney's office, she complained in the letter to Delgadillo.

Marquez is very concerned about the expirations, according to a representative, who also said the general manager was out of the country attending a family funeral Monday and was not available for interviews.

Marquez sent 31 of the cases back to the city attorney because she believes they warrant criminal charges. "These 31 cases were returned with no helpful information as to the status of each case," Marquez wrote.

Richard H. Llewellyn Jr., who is Delgadillo's chief deputy, replied Monday in a letter and disputed the allegation that his office failed to communicate with the Housing Department. He said he was surprised and disappointed that Marquez did not acknowledge that they had talked about meeting to increase their enforcement efforts.

"My staff has attempted to schedule this meeting without success," Llewellyn wrote.

He said the majority of the 275 cases were handled through internal hearings that led to relief for the tenants, such as rent reduction, or else were closed because of "a conclusion that the alleged criminal violation could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

Llewellyn said the 31 most recent cases, which Marquez returned to the city attorney's office, did not have hearings because they need more investigation.

Delgadillo's office could not provide the number of cases in which tenants received some relief and the number of cases not filed for lack of evidence.

Spokesman Jonathan Diamond said hearings were held on 134 cases, but information was not available Monday on the outcomes.

Asked how many rent-control cases the city attorney has filed in the last two years, Diamond cited one case in which a lawsuit seeking civil penalties was filed against the owner of an Encino apartment building in February for excessive rent increases.

He declined to address the allegation that the statute of limitations expired for most of the cases while in the hands of his office.

Llewellyn faulted the Housing Department's documentation, saying many cases lacked proof that the alleged offender owned the apartment building in question.

The Housing Department refers 40 to 50 cases each year to the city attorney based on allegations that rent-control laws were violated.

Tenant rights leaders, including Abdullah Muhammad, chairman of the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said they were frustrated that so many cases went nowhere.

"I'm very disappointed because he's supposed to protect the citizens, but he's not doing his job," Muhammad said of Delgadillo. "It means landlords will continue to do what they have been doing."

The dispute is the latest in an ongoing disagreement about how the two agencies should work together to protect tenants in Los Angeles.

Housing officials recently complained that the city attorney's office referred a slum-housing case for an inspection without letting them know the building was run by landlords who have a long history of operating buildings with substandard conditions. The city had a legal settlement with the landlords that could have been used to force them to comply quickly.

The Times reported in October that Delgadillo accepted $16,600 in political contributions from the landlords, as well as their businesses, associates and relatives. Muhammad cited the article as evidence that it appears landlords have influence over the city attorney because of campaign contributions.

The political action committees of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles and other landlord affiliates have contributed $3,500 to Delgadillo since 2001. Delgadillo, who was elected city attorney in 2001 and reelected this year, is running for state attorney general.

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