Los Angeles City Hall as Slumlord | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Los Angeles City Hall as Slumlord 

Council members Perry and Cardenas pressured the CRA to hand Ruben Islas public money. But a federal judge called it like it was.

Wednesday, Jul 9 2008

This is an update of the original online story.

Ted Soqui

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Tough cookies: Barbara Rowe, with neighbor Hilda Quintana, are targeting their rich landlord at the tattered Alexandria Hotel.

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Decrepit majesty: 100 years ago, the lavish building became the hot spot for studio chieftains.

BRUSHING OFF THE ALLEGATIONS of a bedraggled group of protesting tenants at an explosive Community Redevelopment Agency hearing last summer, two Los Angeles City Council members lobbied extensively — and unusually — to assure that the alleged slumlord of the Alexandria Hotel, Ruben Islas, received $8 million in taxpayer monies for another, similar downtown renovation project.

L.A. Weekly has learned that City Councilman Tony Cardenas and his colleague Jan Perry — with an assist from Assemblyman Fabian Núñez — sought Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s personal involvement last August to make an unguaranteed loan of public funds to Islas, a rich political insider.

The push came after Islas, his wife, his business partner, his employees and their family members gave Cardenas $10,100 in contributions in 2006 and 2007. In fact, city records show, just 27 days before the raucous CRA hearing in August, Islas and his wife gave Cardenas $2,000. And 10 days after Islas got final City Council approval for the subsidy, Cardenas received another $2,000 in total from Islas, his wife, his business partner Jules Arthur and Arthur’s wife.

Cardenas made his highly unusual appearance at the August 2007 CRA meeting, lavishing his political contributor with public praise — even as Islas’ tenants, sitting nearby, accused Islas of taking public money and misusing it to exacerbate a slum situation at the Alexandria Hotel.

Cardenas declared, “I have full confidence that [Islas] handles his properties ... as respectfully as possible.” He added: “I would challenge every single one of you to go to a project that he has in Los Angeles or somewhere else in the western United States, just show up, unannounced, and see what you see, and compare, in your mind, what you think ought to be going on in the real world and what they are doing as a corporation for these people.

“I’m here to be a character witness for this individual and his corporation,” Cardenas said.

The CRA board backed Cardenas, approving an $8 million subsidy for the so-called Rosslyn Lofts, an Islas-controlled renovation project downtown, nowhere near Cardenas’ own council district miles away in the San Fernando Valley.

But the odd drama is hardly over. Shortly after the August CRA meeting ended, one clearly worried CRA board member took Cardenas up on his suggestion to see Islas’ property-management skills — firsthand.

Board member John Perez, the well-connected first cousin of Villaraigosa who is expected to win an Eastside seat in the California Legislature in November, promptly visited the Alexandria Hotel. There, Perez saw the squalid conditions the current tenants had tried in vain to alert the board to. “The conditions were deplorable,” Perez tells the Weekly.

Tenants had no running water or drinking water in the midst of summer heat, and, without running water, toilets were backing up with raw sewage.

“People literally had human waste that had been there for three days,” Perez recalls.

Three other CRA board members who backed Cardenas and Perry —  attorney William H. Jackson, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley Bruce D. Ackerman and architect Alejandro Ortiz — did not go on the impromptu field trip.

Now, looking back on his vote, Perez says Islas was promising to renovate empty floors at the Rosslyn to provide 259 “affordable” rentals subsidized by the CRA. “Nobody else was stepping up,” says Perez.

Even so, e-mails obtained by the Weekly from litigants who are suing Islas and the CRA in federal court over conditions at the Alexandria dramatically illustrate how Cardenas, Perry and Núñez all began pressuring Villaraigosa to step in on Islas’ behalf just before the agency handed Islas the $8 million last August.

According to the e-mails, CRA chief executive officer Cecilia Estolano had opposed Islas’ surprise demand for an extra $4 million in subsidies — an unsecured loan of taxpayer monies that, the e-mails show, city bureaucrats believed would never be repaid. But that all changed, and quickly.

A deliciously juicy e-mail from top mayoral aide Cathy Finley to Deputy Mayor Bud Ovrom and other Villaraigosa insiders elucidates upon what appears to be blatant, closed-door scheming by Jan Perry and direct, private pressure on the mayor from Tony Cardenas and Fabian Núñez:

“[Councilwoman] Perry said that this is NOT set for the CRA board on Thursday, and she believes that the deal is in jeopardy. She thinks that the Mayor will need to call the CEO to ask her to sign it,” wrote Finley of the pressure Perry wanted the mayor to put on Estolano. Finley also advised: “[Perry] will not mention this at the press conference, due to too many people being around [the Weekly’s emphasis].”

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