The billboard company known as Clear Channel Outdoor has long been a warrior at Los Angeles City Hall, playing legal hardball as it worked to protect a local advertising industry valued at more than $1 billion from new regulations.
The company sued Los Angeles in 2002, halting an inspection program that would have determined whether more than 10,000 billboards had proper permits. Four years later, Clear Channel won a legal settlement that allowed up to 420 of its billboards to be upgraded into digital signs.
Today, the veteran City Hall lobbyist who represented Clear Channel during that lawsuit will help throw a party for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, the man whose legal team represented the city throughout the billboard fight -- and who won office with considerable help from billboard interests.
The event is drawing fire from anti-billboard activists, who called the cocktail reception at the Four Seasons Hotel a fawning thank-you to Delgadillo -- and a symbol of the chummy relationships between city politicians, lobbyists and the billboard industry.
"How can he be independent?" asked Dennis Hathaway, a spokesman for the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. "It calls into question [Delgadillo's] objectivity in acting on behalf of the city on all these lawsuits."
Delgadillo, through a spokesman, said he has a track record of fighting billboards.
The event, "An Evening in Honor of Rocky Delgadillo," will feature “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, the television and radio personality who announced a new agreement last week with Clear Channel regarding advertising on his radio program. Seacrest is on KIIS-FM (102.7), which is part of Clear Channel Radio.
Invitations were sent and RSVPs accepted by Ken Spiker and Associates, the firm that collected nearly $680,000 in city lobbying fees from Clear Channel Outdoor and its sister company, Clear Channel Airports, from 2002 through 2007, according to city documents.
Still, Ken Spiker Jr. said the event has no connection to Clear Channel or the fight over outdoor advertising. Spiker said he severed his ties with Clear Channel in mid-December. And he insisted that Seacrest is showing up to the Delgadillo event because he is friends with two other clients, not Clear Channel.
"Forty of my other clients will be there and 100 CEOs will be there, and none of them are affiliated with billboards," said Spiker, who described himself as a close friend of Delgadillo.
Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez also downplayed the significance of the event, saying it is not a fundraiser but a "meet and greet."
"Apparently, Mr. Seacrest heard some good things about Rocky and wanted to hold a 'meet and greet' to introduce him to some of his friends," he said.
Velasquez disputed accusations that Delgadillo has been soft on billboard companies, saying the city attorney pushed for strict regulations in Sacramento that were backed by the anti-billboard group Scenic America, but were defeated by the Legislature.
"He's only settled [with the billboard companies] when he has been directed by his client, the City Council, to do so," Velasquez said.
City Councilman Jack Weiss sharply disagreed, saying he and his colleagues relied on advice from Delgadillo's team before settling with Clear Channel and other companies. "The city attorney's office drove these settlements, and they know it," Weiss said.
Delgadillo's relationship with Clear Channel dates back to the 2001 election, when the company was one of several entities that spent $425,000 to promote his candidacy on billboards. The Los Angeles Ethics Commission later fined Clear Channel $30,000 for failing to promptly disclose its role in backing Delgadillo and council candidate Wendy Greuel.
Clear Channel's involvement in city politics grew in 2002, when the Los Angeles City Council -- after 14 years of trying -- approved a ban on outdoor advertising. Clear Channel and a second company, CBS Outdoor, went to court, challenging both the ban and an inspection program that was designed to identify billboards without proper permits.
When the city settled, Clear Channel and CBS agreed to take down 98 of 3,285 billboards. In exchange, the two companies received the right to modernize 840 existing billboards into digital signs.
Spiker, acting as Clear Channel's lobbyist, praised the deal at the time. Neighborhood groups were furious, saying it instantly legalized hundreds of un-permitted signs.
"It really is a total giveaway to the companies," activist Hathaway said Wednesday.
Six years after the billboard ban was passed, the city still lacks an inspection program to identify billboards that have been illegally erected or expanded. And in recent months, Spiker lobbied the city on a different proposal: the creation of a one-block sign district in downtown Los Angeles that would place two double-sided billboards -- one of them digital -- next to the 10 Freeway near San Pedro Street.