MICHAEL JACKSON: THE POST-MORTEM SPENDING SPREE
City police were stretched to the limit and taxpayer dollars were splurged by the millions, but the City Hall scenes swirling around the Michael Jackson memorial also created an unmistakable glow — one that spoke to ambition and opportunity — and at its center was City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
There was Perry basking in that attention, on CBS’ The Early Show one minute and MSNBC another, even earning a gushing Los Angeles Times profile that painted her as Citizen Perry up at 4:30 a.m., “zipping up and down city streets around Staples Center in her Honda Accord hybrid.” The Jackson tragedy was a public relations coup for Perry, who has represented the downtown area for eight years and is said to aspire to be mayor. With Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in South Africa attending an awards banquet, and Mayor Pro-Tem Eric Garcetti off to Japan, the pop icon’s funeral served as a perfect dry run to demonstrate Perry’s capabilities as mayor.
As she called for the Jackson family to defray the event’s estimated $3 million to $4 million cost, these scenes, both on TV and over the radio, perhaps unintentionally exposed who Perry perceives as her key constituents. It wasn’t taxpayers.
It was all but impossible to find mention, in Perry’s extensive media whirlwind, of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, as controversy over the costs mounted. That gorilla would be corporate king AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) a multitentacled billion-dollar enterprise. AEG owns Staples Center, which hosted the memorial, and the neighboring L.A. Live entertainment venue. It is also developing the über-luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel under construction nearby, which will include opulent condos with five-star amenities.
AEG and its reclusive Colorado billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, stand to profit from the more than 100 hours of footage taken of Jackson in meetings, auditions and rehearsals at Staples Center in preparation for his last, never-to-be, “This Is It” 50-venue concert tour.
Yet the much-disputed cost of providing thousands of police, street and sewer workers and others utterly free of charge, to keep order, control traffic, provide toilets and close Los Angeles freeways during the Jackson event, will be borne by Los Angeles residents.
On July 13 the mayor was back from South Africa, where he attended an awards banquet. His vacation, it now turns out, was paid by the banquet’s producer, the Academy of Achievement — which lists none other than Philip Anschutz as a big-money donating “patron.” Upon his return, Villaraigosa scolded those questioning the memorial’s cost, declaring that L.A. is a “world-class” city so he would not seek reimbursement from the Jacksons — or AEG — for funeral costs.
Both Perry and Villaraigosa have many strong ties to AEG. The firm has showered Villaraigosa’s political initiatives with $150,000, backing the mayor’s successful push to significantly boost the city phone tax on residents, and supporting Villaraigosa’s failed bid to take over L.A. schools.
Both Perry and Villaraigosa are highly visible boosters of Anschutz and AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke. Perry and Leiweke have breakfasted together, regularly chat and often publicly praise one another. On June 18, at a celebration of the Laker NBA Championship at the Coliseum, Perry went before a crowd of 80,000 — and thanked her friend Tim Leiweke. Earlier in June, she joined Villaraigosa in announcing that the NBA’s All-Star Game would come to Los Angeles in 2011 — and she again thanked Leiweke and AEG.
Perry’s support for Leiweke and Anschutz has created a persistent City Hall rumor: that Proposition R, approved by Los Angeles voters in 2006, which allowed the council members to remain in office for 12 instead of eight years, was initiated to keep Perry in power — so she can continue supporting AEG’s interests.
Perry did not respond to the Weekly’s queries. Such rumors are bound to arise, since taxpayers have been tapped to provide AEG with several big financial crutches, and Perry and Villaraigosa are the key cheerleaders. In 2007, wealthy AEG received a whopping $50 million in state bond monies from Proposition 1C, the Housing and Emergency Trust Fund Act of 2006. As the Weekly has reported, California voters approved this bond money to provide “affordable housing” for battered women and the poor.
But by mining the bond measure’s fine print, state officials, egged on by L.A. politicians, legally diverted $50 million — not for affordable housing but to pay for pretty sidewalks, upscale street-scaping and other improvements to Figueroa Street, which leads to AEG’s Staples Center and L.A. Live.
There’s more: The city has agreed to “rebate” to AEG up to $246 million in bed taxes paid by hotel visitors — a huge windfall that would normally flow into city coffers from the two high-end hotels AEG is developing next to its L.A. Live venue. But keep your calculators out: Anschutz has also received $4 million in “forgiven” building-permit fees for downtown developments — fees that little-guy businesses are seldom allowed to avoid. And last September, with only Councilman Bill Rosendahl dissenting, the City Council sold AEG the exclusive rights to erect controversial, huge, lucrative billboards on the taxpayer-owned Convention Center. In selling off this vast outdoor advertising space to AEG, the City Council failed to allow competitive bidding, prompting billboard opponent Dennis Hathaway to say, “AEG is the tail wagging the dog of the city.”
Then, on July 9, just days after the Jackson memorial, Villaraigosa’s political appointees on the city Planning Commission also backed the hotly criticized Convention Center scheme, under which its widely recognized green outer wall, at 50,000 square feet, would become one of the biggest billboard surfaces in California.
Newly elected City Attorney Carmen Trutanich had alerted the Planning Commission last week not to act until he determined whether the AEG scheme was ethically and legally permissible, but Villaraigosa’s appointees ignored him. The deal cut with AEG would force tens of thousands of motorists stuck on the 10 and 110 freeways to view huge ads. Trutanich wants the deal halted while Trutanich determines whether the sudden vote by Villaraigosa’s political appointees on the Planning Commission were ethically and legally permissible.
Now, Councilwoman Janice Hahn appears to be joining AEG’s unofficial political team, calling for a “study” to show how much in extra taxes the city reaped from visitors to the Jackson event — echoing talking points put out by Carol Schatz, who runs a downtown business lobbying group.
AEG’s potential Jackson profits are not lost on City Councilman Dennis Zine, who vociferously slammed what he says is $3.8 million in city worker overtime, lost hours and donating of normal work hours, all burned up by police and other city workers to honor Jackson.
AEG raised eyebrows when it lashed back at Zine, with Tim Leiweke declaring that Zine was out of line — an unusual muscle-flexing scene by Leiweke.
Impromptu and unscientific polls on Facebook and other social media sites show that Angelenos emphatically do not want to pick up this tab. As Zine’s office announced, “The event was held at their location, they are the promoters, and they are the ones who stand to profit.”
Yet a fascinating scene unfolded when Villaraigosa’s spokesman Matt Szabo Twittered the media, trying to spin the event as costing taxpayers only $1.4 million, not nearly $4 million. The Los Angeles Times accepted that low figure and published it without question.
Szabo calculated only the overtime, ignoring the reality that city workers burned through thousands of normal workday hours over several days. “How many calls got dropped?” Zine asked during a radio interview, of badly stretched emergency systems.
Whether the dropped tasks involved street-service workers, traffic coordinators, sewer workers or cops, the work they left on their desks might also cascade into a series of overtime issues as they try to catch up.
Councilman Rosendahl believes the Jackson memorial should not be marred by a debate over cost, saying, “AEG has done very well by our city over the years. The city has given them extensive support, and it would be a positive thing of AEG to work with us.”
Yet any typical L.A. resident who sought to hold an event that forced street closures and caused big strains on city services would be required to apply for a permit that could hold them liable for policing, street closure and clean-up costs.
According to Villaraigosa’s office, AEG did not even file this permit. The end result, sticking taxpayers with the tab, is “just plain wrong,” says neighborhood council activist Jack Humphreville.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.