A decorative exterior masks an oil rig on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel ramped up her attacks on chief rival Eric Garcetti on Thursday, alleging that his family's financial connections to a controversial oil drilling operation at Beverly Hills High School has endangered children and raised questions about the authenticity of his environmental credentials.
Days before voters head to the polls, Greuel pounced on a Times article this week detailing Garcetti's interest in a 20-year lease with Venoco Inc. In 1998, Garcetti and family members signed a lease with the oil company granting them subsurface drilling rights to a Beverly Hills retail property co-owned by the councilman. Although the company has not extracted oil from the Garcetti property, environmentalists and some high school alumni have raised health concerns about the Venoco wells at the campus.
"He has promoted himself as an environmental champion, but he has never mentioned his oil interests," Greuel said. "Every day we get a new Eric Garcetti, someone who tries to be everything to everyone."
Garcetti called the allegations "a desperate attack from an increasingly desperate Wendy Greuel" during a news conference Thursday afternoon. He noted that Greuel accepted a $250 contribution from a Venoco lobbyist during her city controller campaign in 2009.
"There is one candidate in this campaign who is focused on cleaning up the environment, and there is one who is focused on flinging mud," said Garcetti, who has been endorsed by the Los Angeles-area chapter of the Sierra Club.
Thursday marked a sharply negative turn for Greuel, underscoring the closeness of the race in its final days.
The Times reported this week that Garcetti and family members signed a lease with Venoco in 1998 allowing the company to access oil and gas underneath their Wilshire Boulevard property by slant drilling from the high school, about a half-mile away. Venoco says it has not taken any oil or gas from the Garcetti site, but some high school alumni and environmentalists have alleged that the wells at the high school have produced hazardous levels of benzene.
In 2003, Venoco paid a fine and agreed to install monitoring equipment to settle pollution complaints from air quality officials. The same year, the law firm of environmental advocate Erin Brockovich brought suits against the company, the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills school district alleging that the wells caused cancer in former students. The lawsuits were dismissed.
Greuel said Thursday that health concerns remain, adding: "As the mom of a child in public school, I understand the importance of this."
She cited environmental problems Venoco has faced, including an oil spill off the coast near Santa Barbara. "It's absolutely unconscionable to me that Eric is allowing children to be in danger by leasing his property to this company," she told reporters at her Van Nuys headquarters. Garcetti should "apologize to environmentalists and to the families and the children that have been impacted by this oil field," she said.
Garcetti said the controversy surrounding the high school wells has nothing to do with the Wilshire property that houses a hair salon and generates rent for him and his relatives. However, Venoco spokeswoman Lisa Rivas said any oil extraction from the Garcetti property would be via the high school operation.
Garcetti repeatedly stressed "no oil has ever been extracted" from beneath his family's property and "none ever will."
He cited a Beverly Hills ban on new oil extraction. But that would not affect Venoco until its current agreement with the school district expires at the end of 2016. Venoco secured the Garcetti lease in anticipation of expanding drilling operations, Rivas said, but the company does not know if that will happen. Garcetti and his relatives separately signed the lease in the presence of a notary.
Garcetti's campaign originally said the councilman had no memory of signing the lease, which pays him $1.25 in annual fees and guarantees him a share of any proceeds if oil or gas is extracted from the property. Garcetti has said he would donate any royalties from the agreement to the Sierra Club.
Greuel suggested that Garcetti concealed his connection to Venoco from voters by not reporting his stake in the property for several years on state and city disclosure forms. (Garcetti did list the real estate holding on state and city forms from 2007 through 2009, but omitted it in the years before and since then).
State law generally requires disclosure of real estate holdings within two miles of an officeholder's jurisdiction. The Beverly Hills property is within that distance of Los Angeles. Garcetti's aides said he was advised that he did not have to report the property on his disclosure forms before 2007 because it was outside the Los Angeles city limits.