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Supervisor's residence outside district raises legal questions

July 27, 2007|Jack Leonard and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who was elected to represent some of the county's poorest neighborhoods, is living in a gated Brentwood home, despite laws requiring her to reside in the predominantly South Los Angeles district she serves.

In an interview with The Times two weeks ago, Burke said it was only on weekends and special occasions that she used her Brentwood home -- a 4,000-square-foot residence with a swimming pool and tennis court that she and her husband have long owned. She said she lived at a 1,200-square-foot townhouse in Mar Vista, on a busy street just inside the border of her district.

But over a three-week period in which she was observed by Times reporters, Burke spent every weekday evening at her Brentwood house, in the district of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. When confronted by reporters Wednesday, Burke changed her story and acknowledged that she has rarely slept in the Mar Vista townhouse, which she has declared as her primary residence since she purchased it more than a year ago.

She conceded that the time she has actually spent there amounts to "maybe a month or two."

Asked whether voters would consider her primary residence as the place where she sleeps, Burke replied: "So I'll start sleeping here if that'll make you happy."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Burke residence: A map in Friday's Section A that accompanied an article about the two residences of Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke misspelled McLaughlin Avenue as McGlaughlin Avenue.

On Thursday -- before this report was published -- Burke issued a statement declaring that she has "always maintained my primary" residence within her district. And she accused Times reporters of accosting her during the sidewalk interview the day before.

In a telephone conversation with The Times later Thursday, Burke said she hoped to move into the Mar Vista townhouse as early as next week.

In order to hold their offices, the five supervisors, who preside over the nation's largest county government, are required by law to live in the districts they serve. If they don't, their office is deemed vacant.

In some cases, politicians living outside their districts have been criminally prosecuted for perjury and election fraud. Experts in government accountability say it is important that politicians live in the districts they represent so they better understand the concerns of their constituents.

Although questions about candidates' residency are fairly common in election campaigns, they are rare for county supervisors, whose districts are vast compared to those of most local elected officials.

Burke's District 2 encompasses 158 square miles and runs from Mar Vista to Lynwood, from a portion of Hollywood to the city of Carson. The district includes affluent areas, such as Ladera Heights, but also many neighborhoods facing chronic homelessness and disproportionately high rates of crime and unemployment.

Among the most difficult issues facing Burke's district is the possible closure of its county-run hospital, Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Medical Center. Years of medical lapses, including the deaths of patients, have left it facing a critical inspection this month to determine whether it can continue to receive federal funding.

Burke, who has said she won't seek reelection when her term expires in 2008, said Wednesday that she hadn't been staying at her townhouse much because she was having work done to "get it up to my par." The 74-year-old politician said she's painted the interior and remodeled the kitchen and powder room.

Before buying the Mar Vista townhouse, Burke declared an apartment in West Los Angeles as her primary residence, but she acknowledged in the interview Wednesday that she slept there only "once in a while," staying instead at the Brentwood house.

Even though she spends nights in Brentwood, Burke said she felt she was fulfilling her residency requirement by visiting her townhouse in the mornings and evenings.

"I come here, my driver meets me here. I go in the house, I do whatever I have to do here," Burke said in an interview outside the Mar Vista home.

Excluding weekends, Burke said "there is not a day that I'm not here. Not one day.... Is that a crime?"

Each weekday morning that Times reporters watched from outside the Brentwood house, Burke got into her county-owned Chrysler 300 and drove the five miles to the townhouse, where her county-paid driver was waiting.

Occasionally, Burke would pick up or drop off mail during the townhouse visits, which typically lasted less than five minutes.

Her driver would then take her the rest of the way to work at the County Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles.

In the evenings, the driver would chauffeur Burke back to the townhouse, where he would retrieve his personal vehicle and Burke would drive back in the 300 to the Brentwood house, often stopping at the home's gates to pick up mail.

In recent years, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has successfully prosecuted several politicians for living outside their districts -- in Huntington Park, South Gate and West Covina.

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