Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich allegedly threatened to prosecute city building officials last week if they issued permits for six wall signs at the L.A. Live entertainment complex downtown, and a city councilwoman said he threatened her with jail time if she intervened.
The actions generated more heat in L.A.'s contentious fight over billboards and intensified a feud between Trutanich and one of downtown's most politically connected corporations, Anschutz Entertainment Group.
AEG, which owns L.A. Live and is seeking to place large signs on the outside walls of its new movie theater, called Trutanich's actions "bullying and political thuggery." Trutanich called AEG a "good citizen" but warned that he would prosecute anyone who appears to violate a ban on outdoor advertising approved by the City Council in August.
"I'm going to enforce the law. There's a ban," Trutanich said. "I told them what the consequences were. Nobody got threatened. Absolutely not."
Trutanich confirmed, however, that in a meeting last week he vowed to file misdemeanor charges against Raymond Chan, interim general manager of the Department of Building and Safety, if he approved permits for signs on AEG's Regal Cinemas. He also threatened to file charges against AEG representatives in the room if they attempted to use political connections to circumvent him, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Trutanich declined to discuss allegations that he threatened Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes L.A. Live, saying their conversation was confidential because as a council member she is his client.
But Perry said the outdoor advertising ban -- which bars new digital signs, supergraphics and billboards facing freeways -- does not cover projects already approved and underway, including the AEG's theater at L.A. Live. Perry said that when she made her case to Trutanich earlier this week, he threatened to send her to jail.
"Our conversation took a direction which did not produce the result I anticipated," Perry said, "and instead ended in the possible threat of incarceration should I pursue my interest in trying to determine why permits had not been issued."
Since he took office on July 1, Trutanich has won key victories in court over billboards. He advised the City Council to approve the sign ban and, weeks later, saw it withstand an initial court challenge.
Trutanich has already been quarreling with AEG over its staging of a memorial for Michael Jackson at Staples Center, which the company owns. Appearing before the City Council in July, Trutanich warned that there were "criminal aspects" to his investigation of the memorial's cost to the city. He refused to elaborate, and thus far no action has been taken. He also has said AEG should pay for the event.
AEG had been planning to install the signs on the theater, which faces the 110 Freeway and Olympic Boulevard, before the Oct. 27 grand opening, which is to feature a premiere of the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It."
Company representatives said the city approved plans for the signs in 2006, and L.A. Live was granted broad signage rights in a general agreement with the city five years before. The city already had granted the structural and electrical permits for the six signs -- the frames and lighting have been installed -- but the artwork permits are pending. Other signs on the theater have been approved.
Chan and other top officials at the city's building department had planned to grant the sign permits before Trutanich intervened, and they believe the signs are permissible under the new restrictions, according to City Hall sources.
"Bullying and political thuggery have no place in Los Angeles," AEG said in a statement released Friday. "As a leading investor in the economic revitalization of downtown Los Angeles and as one of the city's largest employers, our ability to do business and create jobs requires that there be respect for the rule of law and that no one be above the law."
Trutanich did not apologize for his aggressive tactics, saying that the courts in the past have shredded the city's outdoor advertising restrictions because of the council's knack for slipping in exemptions. Trutanich said that taking civil legal action "doesn't work."
"We're going to put teeth back into the billboard law," he said.
Gregory Keating, a professor at USC's Gould School of Law and expert on legal ethics, said threatening criminal prosecution in a case like this is overkill if the options of filing civil or administration action are available, especially when it comes to city officials acting in good faith.
"This appears inappropriate because it's heavy-handed and appears to intimidate people exercising legitimate rights to petition the government," Keating said.
To help mend the confrontation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office may ask a federal court judge to clarify the sign ban to determine if those already permitted are allowed.
This is the second time since taking office in July that Trutanich has vowed to prosecute officials over billboard regulations.
When the city Planning Commission approved signs for the Los Angeles Convention Center in July -- with signage rights to be leased to AEG -- Trutanich sent members a warning that he would "not hesitate to act in the future if it appears that you are aiding and abetting unlawful conduct despite my contrary advice."