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Mystery sign supporting Carmen Trutanich pops up near freeway

A sign urging the reelection of L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich appears near Interstate 5, but his campaign says it knows nothing about it.

January 23, 2013|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • A campaign sign for Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is visible to drivers on southbound Interstate 5 near the Glendale Boulevard exit in northeast Los Angeles.
A campaign sign for Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is visible to… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Shortly after Carmen Trutanich took office as Los Angeles city attorney in 2009, he caused a big splash by taking on illegal billboards. And he's highlighted his crusade against unpermitted signs as he faces a tough reelection battle.

So what's with the splashy Trutanich election banner splayed across a building along a busy stretch of freeway?

The colorful sign, visible to drivers on southbound Interstate 5 near the Glendale Boulevard exit in northeast Los Angeles, features a picture of Trutanich, his campaign's website address and a message urging his reelection. It is stretched across the windowless back wall of a gray, two-story commercial building on Riverside Drive and consists of some sort of fabric recently fastened over an existing sign.

The Trutanich campaign says it knows nothing about the sign, which appeared about two weeks ago, and said it probably was done by a supporter as an "independent expenditure" outside the campaign. (Campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with those who support them or oppose rival candidates.)

If the sign had been purchased by the Trutanich campaign, it would be required to report the expenditure in finance documents it files with the city; if the sign were donated to the campaign, it must be reported as an "in kind" contribution.

"I've not seen it and we didn't put it up," Trutanich campaign consultant Rick Taylor said when asked about the sign this week.

"I think it's great if we have people getting out there to help us independently, but I can't comment on [the sign] because I don't know anything about it," Taylor added.

Nor has anyone filed an "independent expenditure" report with the city, required when spending outside a campaign reaches a value of $1,000.

Technically, the sign is not a "billboard" because its space was not sold for advertising purposes.

David Lara of the city's Building and Safety Department, which keeps tabs on billboards and other signs, said the political banner appears to be legal because it is attached to an existing sign that has a permit. As long as the permitted "sign box" was not altered, it's OK to use it for "political speech," Lara said. He said the department already has looked into the signage and didn't find a problem with it.

A commercial sign along such a highly traveled freeway could command anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000 a month in rent, said a member of the billboard industry, who spoke on condition that he not be identified because his firm does business in the city.

Two principals in the company that owns the building, businessmen Larry Cimmarusti and Ralph Cimmarusti, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Legalities aside, the sign could provide fodder for the three candidates in the March 5 municipal primary who are challenging Trutanich's reelection and create an awkward situation for the city attorney.

In a lawsuit he filed in 2010 to halt so-called supergraphics — large, multistory ads placed on buildings in several high-traffic areas around the city — Trutanich said such signs were public nuisances that distracted motorists. He could certainly argue that the sign that went up along I-5 to advocate for his reelection is nowhere near as large. But it appears meant to grab drivers' attention.

jean.merl@latimes.com

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