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Big Sign Firm Accused of Corruption

Regency Outdoor Advertising allegedly used bribes to position or maintain some billboards. Its owners deny wrongdoing.

October 23, 2005|Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writer

In the quiet of New Year's Eve morning on the Sunset Strip, hours before partygoers celebrated the arrival of 2005, Brian Kennedy tried to give himself a present -- a new billboard that could bring him a million dollars a year.

It didn't matter that he had no permit. Kennedy had gotten his start in the sign business many years earlier by going out at night and pasting movie posters on construction fences without permission.

The scofflaw approach seemed to suit him. He could build his 40-foot billboard now and let the city of West Hollywood take him to court later while he raked in profits.

Kennedy picked a day when City Hall was closed. He had canvas draped over a see-through fence to mask what he was doing.

He might have gotten away with it if Joan English, a deputy city manager, hadn't driven by the lot Kennedy owned at Sunset Boulevard and Queens Road. English could see the top of a crane lifting a billboard pole into place.

She got out of her car and peeled back the canvas to see a sopping-wet Brian Kennedy directing workers in the rain.

"I said, 'Brian, what are you doing?' "

First, Kennedy claimed he had a permit, she said. Then he said he didn't need one because West Hollywood's restrictions on billboards were unconstitutional.

Kennedy and his brother, Drake, co-own Regency Outdoor Advertising, the largest family-owned billboard company in Southern California, worth an estimated half a billion dollars.

The brothers have bulled their way to success, letting little stand in their way. They have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes of politicians who control where signs can be placed. They have filed lawsuit after lawsuit asserting 1st Amendment rights to bombard motorists with slogans.

And, according to sworn statements in lawsuits by a former Regency executive and an attorney who represented the firm, the Kennedy brothers have paid off politicians, bribed the Caltrans billboard inspector for Los Angeles and Orange counties and even poisoned palm trees obstructing some of their most lucrative signs outside Los Angeles International Airport.

On the Sunset Strip that rainy morning, Kennedy was unmoved by English's demand that he and his crew stop work.

"It became obvious they weren't going to listen to me," English recalled, so she called the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Only when three deputies arrived and threatened them with arrest did Kennedy and his crew relent, according to the city attorney.

Nearly a year later, the billboard pole English saw being lowered into place is still standing. The fight has shifted to courtrooms. Kennedy faces trial on a misdemeanor charge of trying to erect a billboard without a permit. He is also suing the city, alleging that it violated his civil rights.

The Kennedy brothers declined to be interviewed for this article. In a letter, Brian Kennedy asserted that he and his brother "categorically deny any wrongdoing or the bribing of public officials, or civil servants, in order to obtain favorable treatment. That said," the letter continued, "we can say that the outdoor advertising industry is heavily regulated and that, as a result, we work closely with government officials and civil servants at all levels."

The Lords

of the Sunset Strip

The Kennedys work out of headquarters without a sign, across from Tower Records in the heart of the Sunset Strip.

In the world of outdoor advertising, the Sunset Strip is a prime showcase, in a league with New York's Time Square and Tokyo's Ginza district. Billboards and ads on the sides of buildings are so much a part of the Strip's visual distinctiveness that six years ago, the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce started awards for the best billboards and "tall walls" signs.

Regency, which owns more billboards on the Strip than any of its competitors, has won its share of honors.

The company does not have the reach of Viacom or Clear Channel, publicly traded giants that reportedly lease about 5,000 billboards each in the Los Angeles area. But Regency's inventory of 500 sign faces is seen by some as the most valuable, sign for sign, in Southern California.

Brian Gurnee, who once ran part of Regency's sales team and is suing the firm in a financial dispute, estimates that the Kennedy brothers, with their high concentration of valuable freeway and Sunset Strip signs, net tens of millions of dollars a year. A full-size billboard costs $40,000 to $100,000 to build but, in the right location, can pay for itself in a month. Regency asks advertisers for $3,000 to $80,000 a month, depending on the exclusivity of the neighborhood and how many motorists pass by.

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