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Suing the city of Los Angeles is part of lobbyist's routine

Benjamin Reznik figures he's filed more than 150 lawsuits against the city over 32 years. Yet he's also a fundraiser for elected officials, including Jack Weiss, now a candidate for city attorney.

March 01, 2009|David Zahniser

Of the 363 lobbyists who worked the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall last year, no one took the city to court more than Benjamin Reznik.

By his own calculation, the veteran land-use lawyer and lobbyist has filed more than 150 lawsuits against the city's boards, commissions and elected officials over the course of his 32-year career, more than any of his peers.

Yet Reznik, 57, is also a frequent campaign fundraiser for elected officials, the same ones who decide not only whether to approve his clients' development projects, but whether to fight or settle should they wind up in court. One recent beneficiary was City Councilman Jack Weiss, a candidate for city attorney who held a $1,000 per person fundraiser at Reznik's Encino home.

The Dec. 14 event has drawn fire from another candidate in the race, Deputy City Atty. Michael Amerian, who said that while such practices are legal, voters expect Weiss to be more careful. "Taking money from anyone with such a long history of suing the city when you're running to be the city attorney just looks bad, and is a big part of why people don't trust politicians," he said.

Last year, Reznik fought Los Angeles in court over a proposed 24-home subdivision in El Sereno, a planned apartment building in North Hollywood, a hotel lighting scheme in Brentwood and a five-story apartment building in Del Rey -- all projects officials had either rejected or scaled back.

If elected, Weiss would run the office that defends the city in such cases and advises the City Council on how to treat other Reznik clients. Reznik's firm, Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, had 83 City Hall lobbying clients last year.

Weiss' campaign consultant, Ace Smith, said Weiss would fight "tooth and nail" for the city, regardless of the law firm or lobbyist involved. Smith also said campaign contributions would play no role in settlement discussions. "Jack Weiss calls them as he sees them. It's just that simple," he added. "He calls them on the merits, and that's the way he's handled his entire career."

Reznik is one of many lobbyists who raise money for Los Angeles politicians. What sets him apart, however, is the frequency with which he sues the city, or threatens to do so.

Reznik estimated that he averages five to six lawsuits against the city per year -- a tally that does not include his cases against other public agencies. That makes him far more pugnacious than other lobbyists at City Hall.

"Reznik is the most litigious attorney that I have ever encountered in the city," said redevelopment agency commissioner Madeline Janis. "Reznik is the kind of lawyer where you are very careful what you say, because he will turn around and sue the city on anything."

Reznik, for his part, said he is more of a lawyer than a lobbyist, fighting in court to ensure that city departments do not deprive his clients of their legal rights. Although he has raised money for many politicians, he said he worked especially closely with Weiss on behalf of religious institutions that have navigated the city's difficult planning process.

"Even before I knew what the field [of candidates] was going to look like, I thought he'd make a very good city attorney," he said. "I don't think it's a secret that he doesn't like land use. He's more interested in security and other big-picture issues. But he's very smart and he's a prosecutor. He's got the credentials."

Weiss is hardly the only person to benefit from Reznik's clout. Reznik has raised money for Amerian's boss, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, and for Councilmen Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar -- Weiss' two colleagues on the council's planning committee, which reviews major development projects.

Reznik has also shown interest in the council race to replace Weiss on the Westside, sending out invitations for at least two of the six candidates. And he has recommended that clients contribute to the reelection campaigns of Council Members Janice Hahn, Eric Garcetti and Dennis Zine.

Reznik has the type of clients that make planners and neighborhood groups apoplectic -- a high-rise hotel in Koreatown, an apartment building in Warner Center, a company that placed a supergraphic banner ad on a historic hotel in Hollywood. Several have sought to turn their rental units into condominiums, forcing out tenants in neighborhoods from Playa del Rey to Panorama City.

Those condominium conversions have come under fire from lawyer Noel Weiss, another candidate for city attorney, who said Los Angeles officials must do more to protect renters. "They're doing a bad job . . . taking care of the people, and that's really where the role of a competent city attorney would take care of it," said Noel Weiss, who represents tenants who seek better relocation benefits. He is not related to Jack Weiss.

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