Hell hath no fury like a woman — or a megacorporation — scorned. That’s the best way to explain the considerable anger aimed at recently elected Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who was interfering with City Hall’s cozy relations with the powerful business empire known as AEG.
The multitentacled company and its executives have given in recent years a hefty $200,000 in political contributions to two of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s pet projects. AEG is also about to complete construction on its Ritz-Carlton hotel, situated next to its L.A. Live entertainment complex, across the street from Staples Center.
All of the above came with City Hall approvals — and massive public subsidies.
Now, AEG wanted City Hall’s approval to program six billboards on the outer walls of L.A. Live a stone's throw from the freeway — prominent ads that would promote not L.A. Live, but cars, deodorant, shampoo, et cetera.
The corporation has been on uneasy terms with Trutanich ever since he said it should reimburse taxpayers for the still-undefined $1 million to $3 million in costs for the Michael Jackson memorial AEG held at Staples Center. The memorial quickly morphed into a global ad for AEG, financed in part by L.A. residents. AEG, which owned rights to footage of the entertainer’s final rehearsals at Staples Center, sold those rights for a reported $60 million.
But when Trutanich advised that AEG’s proposed billboard ads at L.A. Live should be reviewed by a judge because the city had banned new billboards — possibly putting at risk a chunk of AEG’s ad revenues — the skirmishes over who should pay the Jackson bill turned into billboard war.
On Thursday, October 22, the day before the City Council was to decide the AEG billboard issue, Trutanich’s character was assailed in the Los Angeles Times by AEG President and Chief Executive Tim Leiweke. As the CEO described Trutanich’s approach to recouping the money to close streets and to police the Jackson service, “I wouldn’t say it was extortion. ... He’s trying to bully us.”
The story ran just after Leiweke sought and received a private meeting with the Times editorial board. According to Linda Hall, a Times executive assistant, the editorial board met with Leiweke at his request. AEG’s spokesman Michael Roth told the Weekly, “AEG has a regular dialogue with the Los Angeles Times and continues to meet with them on pertinent issues.”
After running its news story, in which Leiweke assailed Trutanich, the paper also published an editorial demanding that AEG get its billboards, which prompted council members to angrily toss aside the advice of Chief Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter. They insisted on debating Carter’s legal advice to the City Council in public rather than holding a private “executive session,” as they usually do to discuss touchy legal matters.
The City Council move was an almost unheard-of act by 15 politicians who have often preferred secrecy to open debate. After excoriating Trutanich, who was not present, the council voted unanimously to give AEG permission to go ahead with its billboards.
“We wanted to exempt certain projects from the [billboard] moratorium,” railed Councilman Richard Alarcon, defending the council’s action. “It was clear to everybody that [Councilwoman Jan] Perry wanted to make sure that this project was exempt.”
“It’s the bare-knuckle backroom politics that citizens don’t normally get to see,” notes Franklin D. Gilliam, dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs. “I’m not surprised that you have this kind of political mess. There’s a lot of money at stake.”
Gilliam, who has a reputation for independent thinking on city politics, says, “It was clear that the [Jackson] service cost a lot of money. But it was unclear how much the city was going to pay. Then there were the machinations of AEG — because it’s clear that they have tremendous financial interests in promoting Michael Jackson — and then Carmen Trutanich got involved. Trutanich’s point was, ‘I’m here to protect the taxpayers,’ and that’s why he goes after AEG. In the middle of this you toss in a billboard issue.”
Dennis Hathaway, a key figure in the city’s anti-billboard movement, adds: “Trutanich is getting in [AEG’s] way, and they’re hitting back.”
The potential ad profits from owning prominent billboards are staggering. Hathaway says Clear Channel Outdoor, for example, can rake in $887,250 per year — from just one digital billboard. In the case of a non-digital billboard visible from the freeway, such as those under dispute in this case, ad revenue can reach $400,000 a year. Roth declined to tell the Weekly how much profit AEG expects to reap now that the City Council has given it the go-ahead for six.
The Times editorial strongly sided with AEG, taking up the company’s argument that city officials had already granted permission for the billboards before the ban on new ones, and that the deal should not be broken.
Hall, who coordinates meetings for the Times’ editorial board, says that requests like Leiweke’s for access to the editorial writers are not uncommon. And before slamming Trutanich in its editorial, the Times first talked with one of Trutanich’s underlings. Billboard opponent Hathaway has met with the editorial board, as has the executive director of Scenic America, a national nonprofit fighting billboard blight.
The editorial, which advised him to lay off the coffee, “looked like a hit piece on Trutanich,” Hathaway says. The unproved accusations raised by Leiweke in the Times news story — that Trutanich was demanding that $6 million be paid into city coffers for Jackson cost overruns — spilled over into the volatile City Council meeting. “It was obvious that people came to that council meeting not just to speak to the issue but to discredit or cast aspersions on the character of the city attorney,” Hathaway contends.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl voted with his colleagues to grant AEG their six billboards but then echoed Hathaway. “I thought Leiweke going to the Times and blasting Carmen was absolutely wrong. Same advice I’d give ‘Nuch’: ‘Tone it down.’ ”
Leiweke openly patronized the City Attorney’s Office, telling the City Council that it was below them to have to engage publicly in the billboard debate, saying, “I’m embarrassed that we have to take you through this [deal] today.”
Political neophyte Trutanich, who beat City Councilman Jack Weiss, in part on his pledge to fight the billboard industry, brought some of the heat upon himself. On July 21, many experts agree, before he was finished with his probe, Trutanich had inappropriately stated that his investigation into the Jackson memorial costs had a criminal aspect. Since then, although he campaigned on “transparency,” he has refused comment.
When the city’s Planning Commission overrode his recommendation to postpone a decision on letting AEG cover large sections of the city-owned L.A. Convention Center with huge, lucrative billboards, Trutanich’s office blasted the commission and, according to one expert, incorrectly interpreted the law. He has also lost credibility with some for flip-flopping on his election promise to allow an audit of former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s $128 million workers compensation program.
Still, Trutanich brings serious firepower to the table in the ongoing billboard wars. Trutanich’s Chief Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter is a former general counsel for the California EPA, and spent 12 years as a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office, including as deputy chief of the Public Corruption and Government Fraud Section, as well as served on the Department of Justice’s Environmental Policy Committee. In a separate billboard legal battle, city politicians who have long kowtowed to billboard giants suddenly saw Trutanich’s team win skirmishes against outdoor advertisers — in court.
“The thing that is getting lost in the power struggle is the protection that the sign ordinance gave, which the public had clamored for,” says David Ewing, a community activist.
For now, Trutanich’s foibles are playing into the hands of AEG and its allies in City Hall.
The issue that prompted the war between the brash new city attorney and the powerful chief executive of AEG — how Leiweke got more than $1 million in city funds to cover the Jackson memorial costs — is far from being resolved. Today, more than three months after Jackson’s death, and despite public promises, neither Villaraigosa nor the City Council have explained who actually authorized taxpayer money for an event that benefited a corporation owned by a billionaire.
Correction: The original version of this story wrongly stated that AEG will install digital billboards that can be seen for up to four miles. They will install lighted, not digital, billboards. New revenue data reflecting this has been added to this revised version.
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