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Villaraigosa supporters accused of money laundering

March 05, 2009|Jack Leonard and Phil Willon

Two Florida businessmen who planned to seek lucrative concession contracts from Los Angeles International Airport for their gift shop business were charged Wednesday with conspiring to launder nearly $40,000 in political donations to Antonio Villaraigosa's 2005 mayoral campaign, authorities said.

Los Angeles County prosecutors alleged in court documents that Sean Anderson and Richard W. Manhire -- executives at Miami-based Travel Traders LLC -- donated the money in the names of at least two dozen employees and their associates between September 2004 and April 2005.

City campaign finance records show that the first donations were made a day after Villaraigosa had dinner with Anderson on Sept. 27, 2004. Villaraigosa, who campaigned on a pledge to restore trust in city government, has insisted that the two men never discussed airport concessions.

In 2005, Villaraigosa led an unsuccessful effort in the City Council to review the Airport Commission's decision to extend existing concession contracts worth an annual $45 million. The move came shortly after more donations were made in the names of employees of the gift shop business.

Prosecutors said Villaraigosa's campaign contacted authorities in 2005 about the contributions after news reports questioned the timing of the donations.

Head Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian, who runs the office's public integrity division, said the mayor cooperated with the investigation and was interviewed. Prosecutors, he said, found no evidence to suggest that the mayor knew the contributions were laundered when his campaign received them.

"We have absolutely no evidence of that," Demerjian said.

One of Manhire's attorneys, John Delionado, said he had not seen the charges but noted that his client never met or had direct contact with Villaraigosa. He said Manhire has cooperated with the district attorney's office, though he had not been interviewed directly. He declined to comment on whether his client was involved in money laundering.

An attorney for Anderson also declined to comment.

Travel Trader's website lists Anderson as president and Manhire as chief financial officer. The site says the company operates more than 200 retail stores in hotels around the country, including several near LAX.

Prosecutors allege that the two executives told their employees that they wanted to raise campaign cash for Villaraigosa in order to obtain airport concession contracts in Los Angeles. The businessmen discussed the plan before Anderson's dinner meeting with Villaraigosa, then a city councilman, alleged Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Nielsen.

The executives allegedly had the company's treasurer collect $1,000 each from employees, who were reimbursed with cash from company accounts, Nielsen said. Donations were also made through spouses and other employee associates, he said.

Nielsen said $45,000 was delivered to Villaraigosa's campaign, of which $39,000 was allegedly laundered contributions.

The criminal charges come a day after Villaraigosa comfortably won a second term as mayor. Prosecutors said the timing of the filing was unrelated to the election.

Nielsen said he had been in negotiations with attorneys for Anderson and Manhire in recent months and was not concerned with the mayoral election.

"It was a pure coincidence," he said.

Villaraigosa was visibly surprised by news of the charges when asked Wednesday about the case shortly after he met with community leaders in North Hollywood. He noted that his campaign had returned the contributions long ago and said he had no inkling that the money might have been tainted when he first received it.

"When you have fundraisers, you don't know who's doing what," he said. "You just know people are coming to your events and they've contributed."

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

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