City Hall's E-Mail War on the Poor
THE E-MAILS ARRIVED in the evening, like some kind of spy thriller. Terse. Unembellished. Mysterious. Even the place they referred to was abbreviated rather than given its full name:
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“Subject: Alex,” the first one read.
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David Riccitiello, a city bureaucrat, wanted to know: “Who took Perez’s statement, your security guard or LAPD?”
“DOJ,” came the response from a wealthy landlord named Ruben Islas. “Don’t tell anyone. No statement.”
“DOJ?” Riccitiello appeared unfamiliar with the term.
“Dept of justice,” Islas confirmed.
The “Alex” is downtown’s historic Alexandria Hotel. Located in the contested space between the city’s core and Skid Row, it long ago disintegrated from a gathering place for foreign royalty, presidents and Hollywood elite to a flophouse for the destitute. Riccitiello is a regional administrator for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, and Islas is a rich affordable-housing developer now renovating the “Alex” — partly with sizable tax-free bonds and public subsidies from Riccitiello’s agency.
Islas has rehabilitated many buildings and, via partnerships, controls 2,894 housing units in the West. But his ownership of the Alexandria has been plagued by problems stemming from his efforts to fix antiquated plumbing and heating while the tenants — some of whom are difficult, including the mentally ill — continue to live there.
A series of e-mails, copies of which were obtained by L.A. Weekly, are important artifacts in the war between Islas and his tenants, who allege that powerful City Hall insiders have tried to discredit them — even naming some of them, in e-mails, as drug dealers — for criticizing the slumlike conditions Islas allows at his hotel.
The DOJ refused to comment. However, Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, alleges that “DOJ” and “drug dealing” references in the e-mails between Islas and city bureaucrats were an attempt to discredit “an entire organization” — her group, LACAN.
In one e-mail between Riccitiello and a CRA spokeswoman, Riccitiello writes, “The african american lady that sat across from me [at the meeting] is under investigation by the Justice Department and LAPD for dealing drugs.”
Dennison is baffled — and steaming. She says one black woman sitting near Riccitiello at the meeting in question has a “very old” drug charge. Another black woman present was a board member of LACAN, Alexandria tenant Barbara Rowe.
Rowe terms the e-mail a “flagrant lie ... If I did [deal drugs], the cops would be over here and I’d be on my way down to ‘Central’” she declares to the Weekly.
In an August 16, 2007, e-mail sent by Riccitiello to the spokeswoman, he alleges: “For example, the guy in the wheel chair at the mtg has 3 units, two stuffed with junk ... he deals drugs.”
The only attendee fitting that description was Leonard Woods. Woods told the Weekly, “No!” he has not been charged with dealing drugs. Saying, “I have nothing to hide,” he provided his date of birth, and an LAPD spokeswoman confirmed he has no arrest record for narcotics.
The redevelopment agency declined to comment. Islas’ partner, Jules Arthur, told the Weekly that “as far as I’m aware” the DOJ was not investigating any tenant for drug dealing.
On August 16, 2007, the night of the “DOJ” e-mails between Islas and Riccitiello, John Perez, a CRA board commissioner, went to investigate the tenants’ complaints — that Islas was presiding over slumlike conditions — firsthand.
Perez tells the Weekly that although a security guard at the Alexandria informed him the “DOJ wants to speak to you,” Perez is pretty sure the justice employee was just there to give Islas private security advice. Through a spokesperson, Perez said the DOJ employee told him “there were some bad people on the property” and “the priority at the building was to keep things under control.”
At the time, bureaucrat Riccitiello was caught in a growing confrontation between tenants and Islas. Riccitiello had tried to calm things down by hiring a third party to monitor the Alexandria, but developer Islas fought against city oversight.
“Come on Dave,” Islas wrote Riccitiello on July 27, 2007. “You know [we] are not doing anything wrong ... Hang in there. This type of overacting is what LACAN wants.”
Three days later, Lillian Burkenheim, a CRA employee, wrote Riccitiello: “I know [Islas’ companies’] response is that these people are LACAN, bipolar, instigators, drunks etc.”
The internal slams on the mostly poor tenants came at a critical time. As the Weekly reported last week, City Councilman Tony Cardenas provided a “character witness” for Islas — who has poured money into Cardenas’ campaign fund — at the CRA board meeting August 16, 2007. That day, Islas was awarded $8 million in loans for the downtown Rosslyn Lofts.
The award came after Cardenas, Councilwoman Jan Perry and Assemblyman Fabian Núñez all privately pressured Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to make sure Islas got the millions he sought.
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