By Joel Sappell
When the top federal prosecutor in Los Angeles announced that City Councilmember José Huizar had been arrested for racketeering, he warned the public not to be deceived by the beauty of downtown’s iconic City Hall.
“Unfortunately, its grand exterior has concealed a cancer,” proclaimed U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, who said the FBI’s sweeping pay-to-play investigation of Los Angeles government is continuing.
In the months, or possibly weeks, ahead, Councilmember-elect Kevin de León will arrive in this symbol of “rampant corruption,” as the prosecutor called it, replacing the man who allegedly turned his office into “a money-making criminal enterprise.”
De León will carry with him a challenge that transcends traditional voter expectations of prompt constituent service and effective public policy.
On a deeper level, he’ll also shoulder the weight of restoring the trust of voters in a district that has gone virtually unrepresented for more than a year. In 2018, Huizar was stripped of his powerful committee posts and has now been barred by his colleagues from even casting a vote.
“This confluence of events—the cloud of corruption in our city, the pandemic, the historic budget shortfalls, the racial and economic injustices in our law enforcement and justice systems—present all of us with an opportunity to build trust and a sense of partnership with the people we represent,” De León told the Boulevard Sentinel in his first extensive interview since Huizar’s arrest on June 23.
“We have to do everything in our power to restore voter confidence in city government,” he said. “With me, that’s going to start on Day One.”
When that day will officially arrive remains uncertain. De León, whose swearing in is scheduled for December, said he’s ready to “roll up my sleeves and dive in now” but that he may be legally prevented from doing so by the city charter.
Specifically, city lawyers are exploring whether De Leon can take office early as a voting member of the council, not just as a nonvoting caretaker, which De León compares to “second-class citizenship. You’re there but you got no vote.”
Currently, the charter allows for a full transition of power if a sitting council member is convicted of a crime or resigns before the expiration of a term. Huizar, who has not yet entered a plea, has been suspended by the council but remains a member.
De León said he’d be “very upset” if the city’s legal staff determines he cannot be a voting member on the council before December. “We’d have to change the charter because it disenfranchises voters of CD-14, who have the right to have a voice and an active partner representing their well-being and interests.”
Still, even as the city’s lawyers are resolving the issue, De León, 53, said he is unofficially guarding the interests of his district, which spans from Eagle Rock to Boyle Heights to downtown L.A.
“We’re monitoring every single [council] motion,” he said, “to see if there’s any hanky-panky going on.”
De León said he’s been told stories by City Hall insiders of councilmembers “raiding” funds from the districts of lame-duck colleagues. Already, De León said, one councilmember has introduced a motion to take $23 million in downtown transportation money from Council District 14.
“If you have a policy difference on the use of money, that’s understandable and that’s debatable,” De León said. “Policy differences are OK. But if you are going to attempt to take the money, do so when you have a full-fledged member there and then it’s a fair fight. Right now, it’s not a fair fight because I’m not there yet and, at the same time, you have an individual who has been suspended from having any voting privileges.”
De León said he sent a letter of complaint to the chair of the finance committee, Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who has yet to respond. The funding motion is still pending in the council.
The councilmember-elect said he understands that, in the midst of the worst corruption scandal in modern Los Angeles history, expectations for reform are high in a district where, before Huizar, two earlier councilmembers also ran into legal trouble.
In the early 1980s, Arthur K. Synder was accused, among other things, of engaging in conflicts of interest and was fined by state watchdogs for not disclosing $142,000 in outside income. His successor, Richard Alatorre, pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion. He failed to disclose $42,000 in cash he received from individuals attempting to influence his decisions in the late 1990s.
De León said he intends to restore faith among constituents by confronting “deep-rooted problems that we have been facing for years, if not decades”—problems created, he argued, by policy decisions that have disproportionately harmed generations of CD-14 residents.
He noted, for example, that nine freeways intersect the district, more “than any other city in America”—the 2, 5, 10, 60, 101, 110, 134, 210 and 710. He said they “crisscross the district like a serpent that chokes the air out of a young girl’s lungs.”
“Imagine the policy decisions that were made. ‘We’re going to build freeways here. We’re not going to build freeways there in other neighborhoods.’ That’s a question of political power. Who has the right to breathe clean air and who doesn’t?”
De León also stressed that the district, which includes downtown’s Skid Row, has the largest homeless population in the nation. He said homelessness, housing insecurity and gentrification will be top targets on his policy agenda.
“The best way I can think of to battle the cloud of corruption,” he said, “is to deliver results for the people of CD-14.”
Joel Sappell, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, is a contributor to the Boulevard Sentinel.
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