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Ryu pushes oversight for development projects

LOS ANGELES — A proposal to establish more oversight of development projects that come before the Los Angeles City Council by creating an office to enforce corruption laws in real estate decisions moved a step forward June 30.

The council’s Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee approved a motion introduced by Councilman David Ryu to establish an inspector general for land use and development.

The inspector general would oversee the Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency to investigate and subpoena city officials — elected or not — with a focus on preventing corruption and increasing transparency on land-use and planning decisions.

The motion comes in response to a wide-ranging scandal in which suspended Councilman Jose Huizar is accused of accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects.

Former Huizar aide George Esparza agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and has been cooperating in the FBI’s years-long probe, and real estate broker and development consultant George Chiang agreed to plead guilty to the same racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a scheme in which a Chinese real estate company bribed a council member in exchange for help on a major development project. Details in that filing also made clear prosecutors were referring to Huizar.

Also, former Councilman Mitch Englander agreed to plead guilty earlier this year to corruption charges for falsifying land-use documents.

“This is the next step in bringing real reform to City Hall,” Ryu said. “I came to City Hall to root out corruption, and there is a lot of work left to be done, … and I urge all my colleagues to support this reform effort.”

Ryu’s motion asks city staff to review the costs and feasibility and best practices of creating Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency. The motion must first be approved by the full City Council before those reports can commence.

The proposed office could exist on its own or within the Controller’s Office or Ethics Department, Ryu said.

The motion mentions oversight offices in other cities, such as the Inspector General’s Office in Chicago, which has 100 staff members investigating potential fraud, abuse and corruption, according to Ryu’s office.

The number of fraud investigators in the Los Angeles Controller’s Office has been reduced in the city budget from four in 2008 to just one today, he said.

Ryu said he argued that was too few investigators in a letter to the council’s Budget and Finance Committee.

“We need more oversight, not less,” Ryu said.

Ryu also recently introduced a motion to change the City Charter to remove the power that council members have to affect City Planning Commission decisions.

The City Council voted last December to prevent developers who have project applications pending at City Hall from making campaign donations to elected officials or candidates for municipal office.

Ryu also said he will be working on further reforms that will be introduced at the end of summer, and he called for action on legislation to publicly finance elections in Los Angeles.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Ryu said. “Doing nothing is ignoring the crisis before us, and doing nothing is costing us the trust of our city’s people,” Ryu said at a news conference June 29. “I cannot believe that City Hall can do the people’s business without restoring that trust.”

Also taking part in the news conference was former City Councilman Michael Woo, who led the effort to enact L.A.’s last major ethics and campaign finance reform measures in 1990; and Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause.

“Changing the status quo in City Hall is always difficult,” Woo said. “The people who have the power don’t like giving it up. I commend Councilmember Ryu for leading this current fight to clean up City Hall.”

“We can no longer ignore corruption in Los Angeles,” Stein said. “We need broad changes that will restore L.A. residents’ trust in their government. We need to reform how campaigns are funded and how money flows in our politics, and we need to strengthen the City’s watchdogs.

“Angelenos deserve a government that works for all its residents, not just those in power and their wealthy, special interest backers.”