Sabrina Venskus: Staring Down Goldman Sachs 

Thursday, May 20 2010

She didn't plan to be the environmental attorney who beat a legal team representing Goldman Sachs. Twice. Sabrina Venskus, who alighted in Los Angeles from Seattle as an 18-year-old in 1989, dreamed of earning enough to get an apartment with her three girlfriends. Their temporary headquarters? The Orange Motel on Sunset Boulevard. "It was this old, seedy hotel," she offers, laughing.

She worked at Tower Records, then at Hollywood Records as an A&R scout. She frequented the Coconut Teaszer and Whisky a Go Go, and did some modeling. She was, still is, what is termed a "willowy" blonde. "I was not successful in it!" she insists, laughing again.

But when Venskus did return to school, her life took a more serious path. At Santa Monica College, she learned that Los Angeles County's last remaining wetlands were in danger of being devastated by the largest construction project on the West Coast, dubbed Playa Vista.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

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Her parents, who began taking Venskus on camping trips when she was an infant, had clearly taught her to love the environment. So it was no surprise that she became an activist. She loved the hands-on side of nature but knew she'd be more effective protecting it as an attorney. The girl who had barely extricated herself from high school got killer grades at UCLA and went on to law school. She became a key attorney representing environmentalists who forced Playa Vista's developers and the Los Angeles City Council to reduce the scope of the luxury housing and commercial project. They saved key parts of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem on L.A.'s crowded Westside.

Venskus wasn't intimidated as she sat across from the Playa Vista attorneys, who were paid in part by a key investor in the project, Goldman Sachs. She hadn't been starstruck by the clientele at Tower Records, either. Not David Bowie, not Tom Cruise, not a Beastie Boy sporting a full mullet. "Hilarious," she recalls.

She'd entered the law equipped with this insight: "Every day that you're a lawyer, you're going to be scared." Or so a college dean once told her. "I went into practice knowing that I would be scared — and that was normal," Venskus admits.

She analyzes the Ballona Wetlands victories with the same certainty: "I think they got sloppy," Venskus observes of the opposing side. "They sort of come from this place that they're so used to being able to buy a politician, or buy their way out of the problems."

That Playa Vista's huge second phase was recently approved by the Los Angeles City Council saddens but does not deter Venskus. She maintains that the legal fights will continue, and she'll continue. "When they win, they win permanently. Once it's gone, you can't get it back."

Today, she has a permanent project of her own: She's about to give birth, and Venskus admits she's been miserable. "I can't think straight because I'm exhausted. When you're a litigator, your brain has to work."

Given the City Council's recent vote to allow more than 2 million square feet to be developed in phase two of Playa Vista, it's reasonable to assume that Venskus' maternity leave will be short and her sharp mind will soon be back in court.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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