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The Mad Men of Los Angeles 

Living the good life, thanks to the big profits from illegal outdoor advertising

Thursday, Mar 18 2010
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Supergraphic multimillionaire Barry Rush couldn't have been pleased to hear a few weeks ago that Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich had taken the audacious step of jailing a compatriot in arms, a Hollywood landlord who, for an undisclosed sum, cut a deal with a shadowy firm that draped an illegal supergraphic around a historic Hollywood Boulevard building.

The caper unfolded in the middle of the night, just in time for the giant, nonpermitted ad to appear in camera background shots for the Oscars. Trutanich's startling move, putting landlord Kayvan Setareh in jail and having$1 million in bail placed on his head, soon brought down the ad.

Rush, who many see as a chief bad boy in the murky world of illegal outdoor advertising, is used to a lot of public anger and attention — but not this much. His firm, World Wide Rush, had nothing to do with the Oscar scheme, but it had his M.O. all over it, tactics used by a handful of pioneers who've perfected the game of nonpermitted outdoor advertising in L.A. and other big cities.

click to flip through (2) In Silver Lake, guerrilla artist Jordan Seiler slathers an illegal outdoor ad with his "weave" art.
  • In Silver Lake, guerrilla artist Jordan Seiler slathers an illegal outdoor ad with his "weave" art.
 
 

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Sounding highly defensive on the phone from his gorgeous, secluded home in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania — known for its mansions, covered bridges and bucolic barns, and as the site of Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in 1776 — Rush wouldn't talk about Setareh's jailing.

"Most people, if you ask them about billboards, they don't have an opinion," Rush says. "Only a small majority have an opinion. Most people consider it as just part of the landscape."

Just days before Setareh was arrested, Trutanich also sued Rush, his wife, Leslye; their L.A. business partners, Paul Fisher, Scott Krantz, Peter Zackery; and their group enterprise, World Wide Mediacom.

The 97-page lawsuit alleged that 12 supergraphic locations belonging to Rush, Zackery, Krantz and Fisher are public nuisances that violate L.A.'s eight-year ban on supergraphics and billboards, and that World Wide Mediacom faces millions of dollars in fines.

"We are hoping if we take the profit away and meet them on their own turf, that it will eventually lead to property owners and advertisers and [illegal ad] installers realizing it is not worth it," Chief Assistant City Attorney Jeffrey Isaacs says.

But the sign barons, who have gotten rich slathering L.A. with nonpermitted, skyscraper-draped supergraphics as well as with small illegal poster ads on the walls of markets and stores, see themselves as the victims here — and some of their arguments have found traction with federal judges.

Rush, called a "mogul" by local bloggers and journalists, bristles at this. "I get my own mail," he says from his sprawling home on upscale Thistlewood Drive in Washington Crossing. "Moguls don't do that. I am truly not a mogul ... I am a guy sitting on my cell phone in my house. I don't have an office ... I live with my wife, dog and kids."

However, Trutanich and anticlutter activists say Rush is among a group of longtime friends and associates who work the system to erect illegal ads in L.A. They have long used the same lawyer — Rush's partner Fisher, now suspended and doing a year in jail for sex with a minor — to find in L.A.'s conflicting codes and practices loopholes they use to keep the city tied up in litigation while they reap huge profits.

Rush's other partners include West Hills resident Krantz, president of an affiliate known as Mediacom, who scouts the region for nonpermitted locations and negotiates with property owners and tenants willing to lease their land for outdoor ads. Zackery, who joined forces with Rush in 2007, lives in Pacific Palisades, spreads campaign money around to California politicians, and owns a company named for himself — City Wide Pete — which runs day-to-day operations for the parent company, World Wide Mediacom, LLC.

Zackery with his longtime friend Gary Shafner, another outdoor-ad guru, spent the 1990s plastering rock-concert posters and poster-style advertising on construction sites.

Shafner, now Zackery's partner, once worked for music promoter Bill Graham and was tour manager for Bob Dylan. Shafner cagily promotes himself as a force against blight and graffiti — while peppering buildings in L.A. with nonpermitted posters and small outdoor ads that have helped to make him rich.

Shafner exudes the indignant persona adopted by the group. In a twist typical of the Los Angeles City Council's policies on outdoor advertising, Shafner got the city's permission to glue poster-size ads on fences around construction sites all over L.A. — if he agreed to keep the areas free of graffiti. But, as Trutanich's office notes, the rest of Shafner's ads, nailed on stores and walls of buildings all over Los Angeles, "are illegal."

Shafner, Zackery, Rush and Krantz relied on attorney Fisher to come up with loopholes they use in court to keep their ads up as long as possible. But Fisher, 50, is serving a year in jail in Orange County for having felony sex with a drunk minor — a 15-year-old girl who prosecutors say was at a hotel for a wedding when Fisher, a stranger, took advantage of her in his hotel room.

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