How Lobbyist John Ek Gets His Way at City Hall
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.
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.
First we solve your problem, then mine.
After the council approved the taxi dispatch contract last month without even a word of debate, Ek stood in the back of the council chamber and received congratulations from a procession of well-wishers. When a reporter introduced himself, he said, "I don't talk to reporters." Indeed, he did not return calls from L.A. Weekly for this story.
That's a key to successful lobbying: Try not to get noticed. Don't take credit. When the fight is over, do your best to sweep away your tracks.
"Part of being a good lobbyist is not having people write stories about you," says Steve Afriat, a veteran City Hall lobbyist. "We're about raising the profile of our clients, not raising our own profiles."
Through all the public hearings on LAX concessions, Ek never stepped to the microphone. Even some of those with a personal stake in the outcome still don't know the sound of his voice. For all the city's reporting requirements, sometimes his opponents don't even know he's there.
To those who know him well, Ek does not come off as a dark lord, perhaps because he's from Minnesota. He has close-cropped gray hair and a doughy face, and he can lapse into his Midwestern accent if prompted.
He is a family guy — three kids, house in San Pedro. He's been known to hurry home to catch American Idol with his daughter.
He has a wry sense of humor and an unhealthy addiction to his BlackBerry. He is, by all accounts, nice, normal and boring.
His firm, Ek & Ek, is a family business. John and Esther Ek met in traffic school. After they married, they worked together for a time at Rose & Kindel, one of the city's top lobbying firms in the 1990s. In sedate San Pedro, they are a power couple.
John Ek started small. In 1993, he was just a few years out of college and a relative minnow in terms of City Hall. He was the L.A. representative of the Air Transport Association when Richard Riordan came along and tried to swallow him up.
The mayor was looking for cash, and he found it at LAX. His plan was to balance the city's budget by forcing the airport to turn over the landing fees it collects from airlines. The airline industry then would be paying for librarians and tree trimmers.
Ek said it was a money grab. To stop it, he needed a lobbyist.
He turned to Maureen Kindel, a City Hall veteran whom newspapers used to describe as a "Tom Bradley crony."
Ek "interviewed every lobbyist in town," Kindel says. "He hired us because we were the only people in town that would take on the mayor."
After several years, the city relented and returned the landing fees. And Ek, having gotten a taste of big-time City Hall lobbying, went to work for Rose & Kindel.
"He sort of trained under me," Kindel says.
From the start, he had a knack for devising winning strategies for Rose & Kindel's clients.
"He's very, very talented," Kindel says. "He works hard. Second, he's very smart. Third, he's very personable. You don't need much more than that."
Like the advertising firm on television's Mad Men, Rose & Kindel was sold to a British PR conglomerate in 2004. Most of the principals left and, over the next few years, Rose & Kindel fell out of the top ranks of L.A. lobbying firms.
In anticipation of the sale, the Eks went out on their own, establishing Ek & Ek in San Pedro in 2003.
San Pedro is the home of Croat fishermen and the children and grandchildren of Croat fishermen. For a lobbyist, just as for a longshoreman, there's one really good reason to be there — the Port of Los Angeles, which looms across the Main Channel and generates hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of contracting opportunities every year. (The port is also the reason that, unlike in most coastal towns, home prices in San Pedro go down the closer you get to the water.)
Just as Ek & Ek was getting started, Ek's career was nearly derailed by the "pay-to-play" scandal that plagued the administration of Janice Hahn's brother, Mayor James Hahn.
The scandal, roughly, was this: While at the time it was legal and indeed customary for city contractors to give money to campaigns, it was not and is not legal for city officials to require a political contribution to do business with the city. Giving money to politicians was considered a good idea, like making the suggested donation at a museum. But if it ever became mandatory, people could go to jail.
(In March, voters changed this by passing Measure H, which bars city contractors from giving to campaigns.)
The pay-to-play scandal kicked up a lot of allegations but resulted in only one prosecution. It did, however, contribute to Mayor Hahn's defeat in 2005.
Ek's piece of the scandal involved one of his airport clients, URS, which complained to investigators that he had urged them to donate to Hahn's anti-secession campaign. This was supposedly done at the behest of Hahn's appointee to the Airport Commission, and Ek allegedly warned of the consequences of not contributing.
Ek denied the allegation.
"I don't do business that way," he told the L.A. Times. "Never have. Never will."
He was called as a witness before the grand jury, and sought counsel from a well-known local defense attorney — Carmen Trutanich, now L.A. city attorney. Ek was never charged.
That kind of thing can ruin a lobbyist, but Ek survived. Since then, Ek & Ek has grown quickly into one of the city's top firms.
"Ek is Mr. Airport right now," says Lou Baglietto, a lobbyist at Butterfield Communications in San Pedro. "He's doing extremely well."
In 2009, Ek & Ek ranked fourth among lobbying firms at City Hall, with $1.6 million in billings, according to Ethics Commission records. Though Ek & Ek had an effective year in 2010, billings fell to $1.3 million.
It's not clear, however, how much you can judge from the city's lobbying records. They do not include lobbying work before other government bodies, such as L.A. County, Long Beach (where Ek & Ek does business but is not registered) or other agencies that don't require registration.
Nor do they count billings for Triple E Associates, run by Esther Ek, which does "community outreach" and thus is not required to register as a lobbying firm. Nor does it include Pacific Atlantic Partners, a Washington, D.C., outpost for a group of L.A. lobbyists, which is small now but stands to grow if Janice Hahn is elected to Congress.
Buoyed by the success of their firm, the Eks have become San Pedro civic leaders. They have served on the boards of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, the Port of Los Angeles Charter High School, the Rotary Club and the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce.
Esther Ek also has developed a close relationship with Janice Hahn, the most powerful person in San Pedro. The two have vacationed together in Hawaii and they often get drinks at Trani's Ristorante — as they say, just "the girls."
John Ek has no shortage of influential friends, either. Two weeks before Trutanich launched his bid for city attorney, he had a small dinner at Trani's to discuss the campaign. His two guests were Janice Hahn and John Ek. At the Dalmatian-American Club fish luncheon in January, Ek greeted Trutanich with a bear hug.
Though it is part of L.A., San Pedro feels like a small town, and the connections can get complicated.
Sergio Carrillo used to be a staffer for Janice Hahn. He left to work for Ek & Ek. From there, he went to an Ek client, Yellow Cab. Hahn's new chief of staff, Doane Liu, came from Triple E Associates.
"The person [Hahn] goes on vacation with is John Ek's wife," says Pat Nave, a San Pedro activist who opposes the Ponte Vista development, which Ek was hired to support. "Most people know it and don't care. That's the way this town is. It's incestuous as hell."
Political contributions add another layer of influence for the Eks. Since 2004, Ek & Ek has raised $165,000 for city campaigns. When Janice Hahn ran for lieutenant governor last year, John and Esther Ek each gave the maximum $6,500. Eight Ek & Ek clients gave another $34,000. When Hahn announced her campaign for Congress earlier this year, John Ek hosted a fundraiser for her in Washington and another in downtown L.A.
But so what? Hahn, who declined to comment for this article, has previously said that such relationships don't influence her decision making.
"If I don't know by now that the public depends on me to review all of the information before me and make the best decision for the city of Los Angeles, then I shouldn't be in this job," she told the L.A. Times last fall.
She might as well have been quoting Jesse Unruh, the late Assembly speaker, who famously said, "If you can't take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women and vote against them, you don't belong here."
Of course, the key element is "voting against them." Hahn hasn't done much of that lately.
Ek's relationship with Hahn, Trutanich and Councilman Tony Cardenas played a major role last year in preserving the airport's reputation for lousy food.
With surveys of airports nationwide putting LAX food among the worst, airport administrators were trying to evict HMS Host in favor of new contractors. The administrators went through an elaborate bidding process — and Host finished dead last among the four bidders. It should have been a fatal blow. But it wasn't, because what happened next was a thing of beauty, in a gothic sort of way.
Host spent $1 million on lobbying in 2010 and, guided by Ek, appealed the outcome of the bidding. Ordinarily, the appeal would be heard by the Airport Commission, which likely would reject it. But the Airport Commission never got a chance to weigh in.
That's because Trutanich, who as city attorney was responsible for offering legal advice, found that commission president Alan Rothenberg had a conflict of interest. Rothenberg's conflict was that he served on the board of California Pizza Kitchen, which was part of Host's bid.
Ostensibly, the city attorney's ruling would prevent Rothenberg from acting on Host's behalf.
Trutanich could have merely disqualified Rothenberg and allowed the rest of the Airport Commission to hear the appeal. If the commission rejected Host's appeal, Host could have taken its case to the full council.
Instead, Trutanich decided to disqualify the entire commission. That decision changed the entire process, sending the appeal into a different arena, one more solicitous to Host. The appeal went to the council's Board of Referred Powers, an obscure panel chaired by Cardenas and featuring Hahn as a member.
Host argued that the bidding process was flawed and should be thrown out. Kelly Martin, the city attorney assigned to LAX, wrote a response that strongly defended the airport.
When Cardenas' chief of staff, Jose Cornejo, received Martin's arguments last June, the first thing he did was forward it to Ek, who digested it for him in an email: "Heavy on arguments on the policy issues and basically says they can waive requirements. Let's talk after you've read it."In other words: Martin is talking about substance. We're not going to win there. We're going to win on process.
The day before the Board of Referred Powers held its first meeting, Cardenas met with Ek and Steve Johnson, an executive with Host. Ek also sought an urgent meeting with Hahn. "Any news on the meeting request for tomorrow or Thursday with HMS Host?" Ek's secretary asked Hahn's assistant. "He's driving me nuts."
By the time the Board of Referred Powers convened in July, Cardenas and Hahn were full of questions about the integrity of the bid process. "Would you say the panelists in food and beverage had experience in food and beverage?" Hahn asked.
After that meeting — the first of several that would drag out for three months — Cardenas issued a list of 30 detailed questions challenging the airport's process.
Ek and Host had Cardenas' and Hahn's votes in the bank, but they needed a third. To get there, they needed a new strategy. So in August, they claimed that the winning bidder on the most lucrative contract, SSP America, should be disqualified because of a conflict of interest.
Gina Marie Lindsey, the LAX executive director, thought the claim was frivolous. But the referee on the issue was once again Carmen Trutanich.
Cardenas canceled a meeting to give Trutanich enough time to weigh in, which made Councilman Bill Rosendahl mad enough to threaten to quit the board.
"I know one thing," Rosendahl said. "This room is full of lobbyists, and they're out there with lots of grins and smiles. I'm nothing but frustrated by the back-channel crap that's going on."
It was also too much for the L.A. Coalition for the Economy and Jobs, a collection of business and labor leaders, who wrote to complain about how the Board of Referred Powers was dragging out the process.
"We urge you to consider these items objectively and render your decision swiftly and fairly so that the airport can move forward to implement these important enhancements by year end," they wrote. "Delays work against the best interests of the city, LAX, the traveling public and the economy of Los Angeles."
The letter was signed by more than 30 top civic leaders, including Maria Elena Durazo of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and Gary Toebben of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.
But up against Ek, it had no effect.
Trutanich overruled LAX chief Lindsey and disqualified SSP. The board then voted 4–1 to restart the bid process, a move that allows Host to stay on at the airport indefinitely.
"The thing about John Ek is he was incredibly effective," says Richard Karno, owner of Groundwork Coffee, which was part of SSP's bid. "He effectively shut down the bidding process. He delayed the thing for probably a year. And they were clearing $20 million a year out of LAX. So they got their money's worth out of him, that's for sure."
In a footnote, Trutanich has since transferred Martin to the Community Redevelopment Agency, so she won't be around when the contract resurfaces.
In December, Cardenas took a trip to San Antonio to participate in a New Alliance for Public Safety conference. While there, according to his deputy chief of staff, Emily Williams, he "happened, by chance, to run into John Ek."
Williams said the two were not vacationing together. Cardenas declines to comment on the relationship.
"I don't think that's an interview he wants to do at this time," says his spokeswoman, Sybil MacDonald.
Cardenas' wife, Norma, is also a lobbyist. Her firm has one lobbying client, West Coast Storm, which has sold $29 million worth of storm grates to the City of L.A. She lobbies at the county; the company's City Hall lobbyist is Ek.
Ek was equally effective on an issue that received much less attention — the city's taxi contract.
L.A. is not known as a taxi town, but for a lot of people — especially in South L.A. — taxis are a primary mode of travel. They're also a big business. The city's taxi franchise is worth $180 million in annual revenues.
Left to its own devices, the taxi industry would ignore South L.A. and cluster at LAX, where the most lucrative fares are to be found. To keep that from happening, the city has to regulate the industry, restricting access to the airport and requiring companies to serve low-income communities.
The city controls which companies can operate where, how many cabs they can have and what fares they can charge. Which means the cab companies need a good lobbyist.
Ek works for Yellow Cab, which owns the largest share of city cabs and tends to speak for the other eight companies. The problem for Yellow Cab was that the franchise was to expire at the end of 2010, and it would have to be opened up to bidding. Yellow Cab was at risk of losing its prime position.
For the city, the problem was quite different. L.A. was quickly falling behind other cities in converting its taxi fleet to hybrids. There was another problem for the city as well: Putting the taxi franchise out to bid would take time and cost money.
Once again, Ek supplied a solution that worked for the politicians as well as for his client.
The taxi companies agreed to "green" the taxi fleet. In exchange, they would get a five-year extension. There would be no bidding.
All Ek needed was a councilman to champion that solution. Enter Cardenas again. In June, he pushed to adopt the taxi companies' plan, even though he doesn't serve on the Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.
Two groups were not at the bargaining table: environmentalists and labor activists.
The environmentalists called the plan "greenwashing" and said the taxi companies were left to police themselves on the conversion to hybrids.
"They didn't provide too many details of the actual greening plan," says Adrian Martinez, a lobbyist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It seems like if you just mention hybrids, that's good enough."
Meanwhile, the L.A. Taxi Workers Alliance, a pro-labor organization, was pushing for a different system that would give greater power to drivers. Those arguments were enough to persuade Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to offer only a compromise two-year extension, during which the city could study a new system.
But it got nowhere with the council, which voted unanimously for the cab companies' plan.
"John Ek and his likes showed the power they have at City Hall," says Hamid Khan, co-founder of the Taxi Workers Alliance.
After that deal came the taxi-dispatching contract at LAX. Authorized Taxicab Supervision, which is a partnership of the nine cab companies, has had the dispatching contract for 20 years.
In 2007, Controller Laura Chick issued a scathing audit of Authorized Taxicab, finding that cash payments to the partnership's board members had been documented improperly. She also described many other concerns and recommended the contract be put out to bid.
It was, and Authorized Taxicab won.
One of the losing bidders, Gateway, took a page out of Host's playbook and alleged the selection process was flawed. But this time, Ek was on the other side. Gateway's allegations went nowhere.
The contract proposal went for approval by the City Council's Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee, which is chaired by Hahn. Bill Rouse, Yellow Cab's general manager, testified that Authorized Taxicab had cleaned up its act in the wake of the controller's audit. Ek sat at his side throughout the hearing. Gateway's protest was barely mentioned. Hahn and Bill Rosendahl voted to give the company a 10-year extension.
The week before the hearing, Rouse gave $1,000 to Hahn's congressional campaign. Ek gave $5,000.
Ek had won again, and observers were taking note.
Ed Roski hired Ek in January to help lure the NFL to the City of Industry. AEG was making waves with its rival proposal for a downtown stadium. Roski needed Ek to help present his case.
"He's well respected by the council," says John Semcken, vice president of Majestic Realty, Roski's firm. "They trust him. They know he's not going to lead them astray."
Publicly, Majestic officials have said they won't do anything to try to stop AEG's project. But privately, it's a different story.
Ek raised concerns about the AEG proposal by giving council members a five-page list of 44 questions, which L.A. Weekly has obtained.
Any doubts about Ek's clout were erased shortly after he distributed his list to council members. Councilman Rosendahl issued his own list of questions about the AEG proposal — and his list bore a striking resemblance to Ek's. In fact, many questions are taken verbatim.
Majestic: "Will the stadium developer agree to never sell/refinance the project until the bonds are paid off?"
Rosendahl: "Will the developer agree to never sell/refinance the project until the bonds are paid off?"
Majestic: "The L.A. Auto Show controls the entire convention center nearly the whole month of November; will we have football or the L.A. Auto Show?"
Rosendahl: "The L.A. Auto Show occupies the entire Convention Center nearly the whole month of November, which is football season. How will the two coexist?"
Majestic: "Given the passing of Prop. 26, would a 'ticket tax' require voter approval?"
Rosendahl: "Does the new Proposition 26 require that the proposed ticket tax be approved by voters?"
Those are fine questions, deserving of answers. But that was even finer lobbying.
(Rosendahl's spokesman, Tony Arranaga, denied that the councilman had drawn upon Majestic's questions. "We have not spoken with Majestic," Arranaga said.)
Once again, both parties' interests had been served. Majestic got to pose a bunch of hostile questions about a rival stadium, without seeming to interfere with AEG. And Rosendahl got to be an aggressive defender of the public purse. Times columnist Steve Lopez praised his "inquiring mind." Rosendahl never had to acknowledge that his research was provided by Majestic's lobbyist.
But what can you expect? Over the last couple of years, City Hall lost 2,400 veteran employees to early retirement. Council offices tend to be staffed by 20-somethings who can't hope to know the issues as well as experienced lobbyists do.
"The institutional memory is starting to traverse more and more to the private sector," says Rudy Svorinich, a former councilman who now lobbies at City Hall. "Whether that's good for government remains to be seen."
City Hall staff reports are often poorly written, or poorly researched, or both. Some are practically worthless. So often enough, elected officials turn to the lobbyists for wisdom and judgment.
"Government's getting leaner every day," says lobbyist Tom Flintoft. "What we provide is a lot of research and analysis that people can either believe or not."
If it's John Ek, they tend to believe it.
"The guy's got somebody's ear," says Karno, the coffee company owner. "I guess if I were ever a large company hoping to impose my will on L.A., I'd probably call him."
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.