For as long as he's been L.A. city attorney, Carmen Trutanich has been trying to throw Barry Rush in jail. Rush, owner of the firm World Wide Rush, was once one of the major installers of unpermitted supergraphics — the giant vinyl signs that blanket the sides of buildings.
Trutanich came into office three years ago vowing to crack down on illegal signs, and he wanted to make an example of Rush. Under Trutanich's predecessor, the city filed 44 criminal misdemeanor counts against Rush. When Trutanich came into office, he made Rush an offer: Plead guilty, and serve two years in jail.
Rush decided to fight, and late last month, the charges were dismissed. That would be a pretty big defeat for Trutanich, were he not reeling from an even bigger loss in the race for district attorney.
“These billboard cases are a case of over-reaching by the city attorney's office,” said Rush's attorney, Vicki Podberesky. “It smacks of a political agenda.”
The criminal charges arose from a Tropicana orange juice advertisement that Rush's company draped on a building at 10801 W. National Blvd., facing the 10 freeway. In late 2008, the city enacted a new sign ordinance that made such graphics illegal.
The city filed criminal and civil cases against Rush and several co-defendants, charging him with violations of state and city code. Rush sued to block the city's ordinance, claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated. Rush won the first round in court, but lost at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010, after which most unpermitted supergraphics were taken down around the city.
By that time, Caltrans had already launched its own administrative action against Rush and Mark Denny, a sign installer who was a co-defendant in the city's case. In January 2011, Rush paid $218,000 to the state to settle the Caltrans claims.
Rush's attorneys then argued that the Caltrans settlement should negate the city's civil and criminal enforcement efforts. Both the city and Caltrans had made their claims on behalf of the People of the State of California, and the “People” — through Caltrans — had already waived any further punishment for the illegal signs. In January, Judge Gregory Alarcon agreed and dismissed the civil case.
Judge Georgina Rizk followed suit on May 30, dismissing the criminal counts.
“The defendants have paid a monetary settlement in settlement of all claims,” Rizk ruled. “The court finds that the prosecution of all misdemeanor counts in this case is barred… based upon the order and settlement agreement in the administrative proceedings.”
Trutanich's office has vowed to appeal, believing that the case “was dismissed on the erroneous grounds that a settlement between Mr. Rush and Caltrans also binds the City,” said spokesman Frank Mateljan.
The defense lawyers, however, suggest that it's time to move on.
“I would think people are sick of this whole thing,” said Anthony Salerno, Denny's attorney. “These criminal cases, at this point, serve no purpose. I hope [Trutanich] can put this behind everybody. The city attorney's office can finally save face and get rid of this dog and blame it on Caltrans.”
Trutanich's office also filed a separate criminal case against Rush and Denny involving supergraphics along the 405 freeway. Podberesky and Salerno said they plan to seek the dismissal of that case on the same grounds.
In February, the Weekly detailed Trutanich's record of prosecuting billboard and supergraphic cases. At that time, only three people had pleaded guilty, out of 52 cases filed, and all received probation.