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How Lobbyist John Ek Gets His Way at City Hall 

Thursday, Apr 21 2011
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The first sign of something unusual on the hillside above Griffin Avenue was a large grid of bore-holes. Montecito Heights activists, who had fought tooth and claw for an ordinance protecting the hillsides, quickly learned that the local nursing home planned to build an array of solar panels.

They had nothing against solar energy, but they feared this would blight the hillside. Couldn't they put the panels somewhere else?

The residents called their councilman, Ed Reyes, and the three-term incumbent intervened. He persuaded the rest of the council to impose a stop-work order. The activists took heart.

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But the nursing home wasn't surrendering. Instead, it called John Ek, a City Hall lobbyist with truckloads of juice. Ek and his associate, Victor Franco, met with Reyes. Soon, the solar project was on again.

The nursing home did make a small concession: So that the panels would be less unattractive, it agreed to paint the poles and seed the hillside with native plants. The parties could talk later about moving the array somewhere else, but here's where Ek's influence really kicked in — any relocation would be at city expense.

Today, a few months later, the project is almost complete. As the neighborhood feared, the panels look "like crap," says Roy Payan, president of the Montecito Heights Improvement Association. "You can see it from every angle. It's an eyesore."

For the activists, the solar project was a lesson in City Hall lobbying.

For Ek, the project was a nice payday. The job amounted to two meetings, two letters and some emails. His bill to the nursing home was $30,000.

Of the 300 lobbyists working City Hall these days, billing clients a combined $34 million last year, few measure up to John Ek. Over the last year, he has put on a master class in effective lobbying.

First came a heated battle over airport concessions. Ek worked for HMS Host, which makes a fortune selling overpriced burgers and stale pastries at LAX. The airport wanted to replace Host. The company found itself in real danger of losing all of its LAX business.

But Ek came to the rescue. He engineered an extraordinary series of insider maneuvers to steer the final decision on Host to friendly city officials, who turned it into a multimillion-dollar win for the company despite strong objections from the airport, the city attorney's staff and business leaders who wanted the food improved.

Next, Ek won a five-year extension for the city's taxi franchises — worth $180 million in annual revenues — without the cumbersome nuisance of competitive bidding.

Last month, it was taxis again, this time a 10-year extension on the airport taxi dispatch contract, despite a scathing audit that revealed a pattern of undocumented cash payments.

Given that track record, when Ed Roski, who is trying to build an NFL stadium in the City of Industry, needed a lobbyist to do the impossible — stop his rival AEG from building a stadium downtown — he turned to Ek.

"Ek's probably got the best pure lobbying firm in L.A.," says Howard Sunkin, the in-house lobbyist for the L.A. Dodgers and an Ek client. "If John tells you something, you don't have to check it out."

Others take a dimmer view.

Jesse Marquez, an environmental activist, has squared off against Ek and his wife, Esther, over oil pipeline projects in Wilmington. "They support bad guys," Marquez says. "They support petroleum industry companies that do not have the community's best interests at heart."

Richard Karno, the owner of Groundwork Coffee, which lost a share of the airport food contract, goes even further. He refers to Ek as "the dark lord."

Good lobbyists do more than merely advocate for their clients. They also raise money for candidates and for charitable causes. The best lobbyists — those like Ek — do even more. They make public policy.

Ek is so close to Councilwoman Janice Hahn that he practically serves as a freelance chief of staff. Hahn's staff members bring their problems to him, and he offers solutions that work for her, and for his clients.

In the case of the solar panels, it would not have been enough for Ek to pound on a table and complain that his client's financing would fall through if the city didn't allow construction to proceed. Too bad. Life is unfair.

The secret for Ek was to see the problem from Councilman Reyes' perspective, as well as the nursing home's. Reyes' problem was angry neighbors upset about industrial blight on a hillside. The nursing home's problem was that it was running out of time to take advantage of government clean-energy incentives.

Ek found a way to satisfy both. His firm wrote Reyes a letter that began by offering to help accomplish "your goals for the hillside." (Reyes' primary goal seems to have been to get the residents off his back.) Only later did Ek's letter get around to ensuring that the nursing home would also be "made whole," presumably at city expense.

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