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Alleged Slumlords Donated to Delgadillo

After settling a suit at a big savings, they gave to the L.A. city attorney. He denies being influenced.

October 26, 2005|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo accepted thousands of dollars in political contributions from two landlords accused of operating apartments with slum conditions after he settled a lawsuit against them for a third of the amount the city initially sought.

Lance Robbins, called "one of Los Angeles' most notorious landlords" in the lawsuit, and Stanley Treitel have an extensive history of involvement with properties cited for violations. Inspections of their buildings have found blocked emergency exits, cockroach infestations and faulty wiring on the premises, according to city records.

In filing the lawsuit, city officials accused the two men and their associates of failing to pay $3 million in delinquent utility bills and penalties. Delgadillo agreed in 2002 to settle the suit, allowing them to pay $1 million. Prosecutors said they concluded that the city would have a difficult time proving the defendants owed much more.

The settlement required the partners to maintain their rental properties or face additional court sanctions, but Delgadillo's office was slow to act when the landlords were accused of ignoring the agreement. Not until a tenant-rights organization drafted a court motion in 2003 did his office step in, activists said.

Since the settlement, Delgadillo has accepted $15,600 from Robbins and Treitel, their businesses, relatives and associates to pay for his campaigns and political expenses, city records show. The contributions include a $5,600 check in April to Delgadillo's campaign for state attorney general.

Delgadillo said he was not aware that Robbins and Treitel were donors and said, in any case, he does not take contributions into account in his prosecutorial decisions. "If one does not have the strength of character to go against contributors, one should not be in office," he said.

Officials with city and state ethics agencies, and the state bar, said there were no regulations prohibiting prosecutors from accepting campaign contributions from those they prosecute criminally or civilly.

But Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles watchdog group, said, "Prosecutors should not be taking campaign contributions from people they are prosecuting. Just in terms of appearance, it smells to high heaven."

Robbins, an attorney, said that the settlement was justified because he thought the city would have lost the case and that former City Atty. James K. Hahn filed the lawsuit in 2001 to promote his own campaign for mayor.

He defended his support for Delgadillo, saying he was a better city attorney than Hahn. "Rocky is one of the fairest guys I've ever met," he said.

Treitel said Delgadillo has done no favors for them: "I don't think he has treated us any differently."

Delgadillo's ties to the two partners worry advocates of fair housing who say the city attorney is failing to aggressively pursue slumlords, in part because he is too cozy, politically, with some.

"The main problem with the city attorney's office is they are not treating slumlords like the criminals they are," said Darla Fjeld, executive director of the tenant-rights group Coalition L.A. "They don't prosecute them. They reach settlements. In some cases there are fines, but the landlords pay them as just the cost of doing business."

Court fines won by Delgadillo's office declined from $210,000 his first year to $188,800 in the fiscal year that ended in June, a six-year low. On average, the city attorney has won less each fiscal year than his predecessor did in his final two years in office.

In fiscal 2003-04, though, Delgadillo set the high mark for the last six years -- $324,200 -- winning convictions in two high-profile cases, including one in which the owner of two MacArthur Park apartment buildings agreed to pay a record $65,000 in fines.

Delgadillo has also rejected more referrals from the city Housing Department. In his first year he declined to pursue lawsuits in 30 cases. In the most recent fiscal year, he declined to file 60.

And the number of landlords sent to jail or house arrest dropped from 12 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2003 to two in the last fiscal year.

Delgadillo said he does not have the staff he needs to handle all of the slum cases, saying that Hahn and the City Council turned him down when he asked to increase the number of attorneys on criminal housing cases from six to 10.

"We do believe our aggressive prosecution has resulted in some very positive benefits for tenants in Los Angeles," he added. "I would be the first to stand up and say it's not nearly enough."

He said he is filing a higher percentage of cases even as his office has received fewer referrals from the Housing Department. And he said he has no control over whether landlords are jailed.

"It's up to the judges," he said, citing a case in which his office asked four times for a landlord to be jailed but could not convince the judge.

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