By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Many of the clean-air regulations adopted by the regional board in the past five years have been required under a 1999 settlement agreement with environmental groups, which sued the agency for deficiencies in its clean-air plan. Other standards adopted for public trucks and buses to a large extent apply only when state money is available to pay for their cleanup, and remain idled by the state’s financial crisis.
At Los Angeles City Hall, records show that Burke’s Los Angeles Marathon Inc., which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for a campaign-money-laundering operation in the 1990s, received continual breaks on city fees for his for-profit marathon from members of the council to whom it contributed. “Clearly he has been somebody influential at City Hall,” said Mike Feuer, a former member of the Los Angeles City Council who questioned concessions to Burke’s marathon.
“He’s right,” quipped Burke. In fact, in years past he might have even exerted what he called “undue” influence at City Hall. “I had more influence then than I have now because of term limits. Everybody who knows me knows that I have never, never deviated from my efforts to improve all communities.”
In his spacious high-ceilinged office in West Los Angeles — decorated with dozens of framed photos, including his own signed work from an Italian vacation, shots of the white-haired Burke with elected officials and celebrities, and memorabilia and posters from early marathons — he said, “I know I’m successful. At least I like to think I’m successful.”
When it comes to seeking influence through political contributions, the 64-year-old Burke has few peers, according to Ben Bycel, an attorney who headed the newly formed City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission in the 1990s and led the investigation into the marathon money-laundering scheme. “From our perspective, Burke was as dirty as they come.”
To the public, Burke often took a back seat to his wife, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the assemblywoman, the member of Congress and now the 2nd District’s representative on the county Board of Supervisors. His real political training began in 1967 as a field deputy for L.A. City Councilman Billy Mills, where he became involved with a network of people who would become politically prominent.
“Nate Holden and I used to bag and haul mail together,” remembered Burke. “We met on the loading docks.” Holden later would go on to become a member of the City Council and a staunch supporter of Burke’s marathon. Burke said he was a friend of the family of former Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson.
Over the years, Wesson and Burke have been political allies. Burke’s political action committee, Californians United Political Action, contributed more than $615,000 to various people running for state office in 2002. Wesson helped raise money for the committee, much of it from tobacco companies and the gambling industry. Soon after the committee’s 2002 spending spree, Wesson appointed Burke to a third state board with sweeping power over the environment — the California Coastal Commission, and Burke quickly became vice chair.
The opportunity of a lifetime opened in the 1984 U.S. Olympics in Los Angeles, when his wife became vice chair of the Organizing Committee and he became commissioner of tennis under Olympics Committee head Peter Ueberroth. After the games, the Los Angeles City Council decided to begin an annual marathon. Building on his experience with the Olympics, Burke formed Los Angeles Marathon Inc. to bid on operating the race.
Burke ranked third among the nine bidders, but eventually won because he became the first finalist to secure a major corporate sponsor, a tentative commitment from General Motors Corporation to pay $600,000 a year for a three-year period. The company backed out, and Mercedes-Benz moved in and sponsored the first race.
Today, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the marathon is how much money Burke makes on it. What is obvious to City Council members who have served in L.A. since 1986 is that Burke pushes hard for concessions from the city, and loathes paying license fees to run the race.
In a 1998 interview with Runner’s World Daily, Burke bragged, “The event has always been known for having some of the largest marathon sponsorship deals in the country.” Last month, however, Burke downplayed the size of marathon sponsorships. Despite public subsidies and the fact that the marathon is run under a public contract, the truth may never be known about Burke’s profits. Soon after he became operator of the event for the city, the council waived regular audits of the company’s books. Moreover, marathon sponsors are bound by a confidentiality agreement with Burke’s company from revealing what they pay to Los Angeles Marathon Inc., according to Richard Beemish, communications manager for Southern California Gas Co., a major sponsor.
While he boasted of fat sponsorships six years ago, today Burke contends that he would go out of business if he had to pay the various fees now forgiven by the city. “We operate on a very slim profit margin,” said Burke. “Some years it’s over $100,000, some years under $100,000.” At the suggestion of opening his books to a city audit, Burke bristled, “This is America, this is not Russia.” ‰
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