Tom Hayden is on the phone. The onetime student radical, later a state senator, is now 75. He had a stroke this year, but is recovering and is active in civic affairs. He is writing a book on Vietnam, but today he wants to talk about an issue closer to home.
For the last year, he has been battling the Namvar family over a hillside project in Brentwood. The Namvars are a notorious bunch. Ezri Namvar, the family's most prominent member, is serving time in federal prison for running a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
The family got on Hayden's radar last fall, when Ezri's brothers cut down 58 sycamores and oaks in Brentwood's Sullivan Canyon. The brothers plan to do major grading to build two 10,000-square-foot mansions.
The neighbors have filed suit, alleging a litany of violations of environmental law. Hayden sees it as a deeper story, involving corruption and bribery. He says he's been quiet about it, but now it's time to go public.
"It's a tale that's quite explosive in its implications," he says, extending an invitation to tour the site the following morning.
Hayden lives north of Sunset Boulevard on a cul-de-sac lined with single-story, midcentury ranch houses. They are worth $2 million and up but are modest compared with the homes being built now.
No one answers Hayden's doorbell. After a few minutes his assistant, Emma, arrives and says Hayden has been taken to the hospital with shortness of breath.
She offers to show the view. The house is laden with books and decorated with portraits of Native Americans. The back patio offers a gorgeous view of the opposite ridge, a pristine outcropping of the Santa Monica Mountains. Down below is Sullivan Canyon. A white ribbon of horse trail is just visible, as is a tangle of recently felled trees.
Emma gets a call from Hayden's wife, Barbara Williams, a Canadian-born actress. Williams arrives a few moments later and explains that Hayden is fine and now eating breakfast at Brentwood Country Mart.
Williams is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and she says the Los Angeles Board of Building and Safety Commissioners is a kangaroo court. The Namvars claim to have notified the neighbors before cutting down the trees. "Not a single person got a notice," she says.
She offers to drive her Prius to Old Ranch Road, a private drive that leads into Sullivan Canyon.
At the site of the mansion project, a bulldozer and backhoe sit idle. Work has been on hold for a year, since a neighborhood outcry led state watershed managers to shut it down. Williams points out the tree stumps and a small creek — the developers want to turn it into a driveway.
The site is about 12 acres. Further up the street, Williams leads the way to a hiking trail that runs up the canyon. She points to a couple of hills, which will be flattened for the mansion building pads. From here it's easy to look up and see the cantilevered tennis court that belongs to TV producer Norman Lear. Williams points out a deer. A couple of mountain bikers zip down the hill.
"We're on Namvar property," she says.
When they bought the land a decade ago and started trying to develop it, the Namvar brothers were among the most respected families in L.A.'s Persian community.
But then the financial crisis hit and Ezri Namvar's banking empire collapsed, robbing hundreds of victims of their life savings.
Ezri owned a fifth of the Sullivan Canyon land. His share was sold in bankruptcy court to his brothers Sean, Mousa, Tony and Ramin. Ezri was known to use investor funds to buy properties in his relatives' names. And though the brothers have paid $14 million to settle claims against them, some victims say it's not enough.
"Where do you think they got the money from" to buy the Sullivan Canyon land, asks Abraham Assil, who lost $6 million and was repaid only $90,000. "They stole it," he claims.
Assil is more interested in getting his money back than helping Hayden, however. "Fuck Tom Hayden," he says. "I don't give a shit what happens in Brentwood."
Sean Namvar, who has been leading the development, referred questions to his attorney. But Mousa Namvar was happy to talk. He says the brothers have kept their finances strictly separated from Ezri's.
Mousa Namvar says they did not have the millions needed to develop the property until Sam Shakib, a real estate investor, offered to partner with them and put up most of the capital. Shakib intends to live in one of the mansions; the other will be sold.
They have spent $560,000 on habitat replacement, and spent years to get permits from state and local authorities.
"The neighbors don't want anything touched," Mousa Namvar says. "But if you buy the land with full legal description and you go and get a permit, it's a democratic country. It's not the Soviet Union."
Of Hayden, he says, "I know he's very connected. But because he's Tom Hayden, that doesn't mean he can strong-arm us."
Soon after the trees came down in the fall of 2014, a state geologist, Valerie Carrillo Zara, told the developers they would need a new Streambed Alteration Agreement to restart construction.
Carrillo Zara reported to her bosses that Shakib and Sean Namvar tried to intimidate her, and that they had at one point pulled officials aside to ask how much money it would take to get the permit faster.
"I'm extremely uncomfortable when these guys ask how much money they can pay us to get this project going, and they have done this numerous times," she wrote in a memo, explaining she wanted no part of anything "that would lead to illegal activity."
The developers' attorney, Patrick Mitchell, says Carrillo Zara misinterpreted their remarks. But the memo found its way to Hayden, who made the most of it. He met with state Sen. Ben Allen, who occupies Hayden's former Senate seat, and got him to write a letter raising concerns about alleged bribery.
Hayden has met with many other city and state officials, but he notes that the Namvars have been big political donors and says some folks seem to fear them.
"Everybody is sort of frozen," he says. "My intuitive sense is they are sitting on it, hoping it goes away."
Hayden and his neighbors are pushing for a full Environmental Impact Report, which might stop the project for good. They are focused on persuading L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who has said he is disturbed about the trees but has not said that he will try to block the development.
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In general, life in Brentwood is pleasant, like a Nancy Meyers movie. Big kitchens, gorgeous views, maybe a horse. The big problem is putting up with your rich neighbors.
"The only thing that stresses me," Hayden says, "is the possibility that bulldozers might be coming at dawn."
Mitchell, the developers' attorney, says construction could resume in the next few months but worries that the lawsuit will drag things out for a year or two.
"We're talking about two homes," he says. "These guys are trying to do the right thing. They've been demonized by people who don't want them building houses next to them. To me, it's a tragedy that these guys spent all this money and this effort and they can't build two homes. To me, that's a tragedy."