Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich tried to pressure the owner of Staples Center to pay $6 million for city services provided during the Michael Jackson memorial, saying he would "go after you guys" if the money was not paid, the company's top executive alleged Wednesday.
"I wouldn't say it was extortion. I would say it's a bully tactic. That's the way I would put it. He's trying to bully us. And he's done it on three different occasions," AEG President and Chief Executive Tim Leiweke told The Times' editorial board Wednesday.
His accusations escalate a growing public feud between the brash new city attorney and one of L.A.'s most influential corporations.
On the one side is the company that owns two of the city's most prominent entertainment venues, Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex. On the other is a city attorney who took office in July and has quickly developed a reputation for aggressive and sometimes unorthodox actions. Trutanich recently threatened to throw City Councilwoman Jan Perry in jail and file criminal charges against the city's top building-and-safety official if they violated his directives regarding AEG.
Earlier in his tenure, when the city Planning Commission ignored Trutanich's request to delay a decision on approving new signs for the Los Angeles Convention Center, the city attorney sent a blistering letter to its members 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."
A spokesman for Trutanich dismissed Leiweke's comments as misguided and adamantly denied that his boss made any attempt to strong-arm AEG over the Jackson memorial.
"The city attorney has never said anything bad about AEG. He said they are good citizens," said John Franklin, Trutanich's communications director. "He just wants them to pay the bill versus the taxpayers. He had nothing against AEG."
Trutanich said he's enforcing the law and looking out for the interests of Los Angeles taxpayers.
But Leiweke said he sees political motives. Leiweke is a major ally of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and both backed Trutanich's opponent in the bitter race for city attorney earlier this year.
Since taking office, Trutanich has blocked sign permits for the company's new downtown movie theater and attempted to delay the city's plans to lease billboard space to AEG at the Convention Center.
Leiweke alleges that Trutanich ordered investigations into AEG's old fire permits and even the cracks in the sidewalks at Staples Center and L.A. Live, both owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group.
Councilman Dennis Zine, who served as an advisor to Trutanich during his transition, said the controversy shows Trutanich's willingness to challenge one of L.A. most prolific influence-peddlers.
AEG and its executives have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to local politicians and their political projects, including $100,000 to Proposition S -- the mayor's 2008 telephone tax measure -- and $100,000 to the Mayor's Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, state and city election records show.
"AEG has been very connected with the politics in the city of Los Angeles. Trutanich is breaking, shall we say, that sweetheart relationship that existed," Zine said.
Last April, Leiweke hosted a campaign fundraiser at Staples Center for Trutanich's opponent, Jack Weiss.
"I can only guess . . . that part of this is that we were on the wrong side of that election," Leiweke said.
Trutanich's spokesman dismissed that, saying "the Jack Weiss issue is absurd."
Leiweke contends the feud began in earnest after Trutanich appeared before the City Council in July and announced there were "criminal aspects" to his investigation into how much the Jackson memorial cost the city.
Concerned that AEG was being accused of wrongdoing, Leiweke called and asked for a one-on-one meeting with Trutanich at the Starbucks at L.A. Live. Trutanich showed up with staff members, including two security officers, and it went downhill from there, Leiweke said.
"I said 'Nuch, I thought we were just going to have a quiet get-to-know-each-other,' " Leiweke said. "He kept his glasses on the whole time and just simply said, let me make sure you understand this straight. I am going back to the original City Charter and I am going to enforce it. And in this particular case, I believe you have done something wrong here, and you don't know what you don't know."
Trutanich requested that AEG reimburse the city for its costs, Leiweke said.
"And I said, what's your idea of settlement? And he said, $6 million. And I said, where did you get that number from? He said, that's the number," Leiweke said, recalling the meeting.
"He made it very clear, either you settle or I am going to go after you guys. I said, 'Fine. I'm sorry this didn't work out.' "