Cody Cluff, former president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. (EIDC), is due in court Friday and is expected to enter into a plea agreement or get a trial date on charges of embezzling from the city-county film-permitting agency that was public, or private, or both, depending on whom you ask. Grand-jury proceedings in August brought out a long list of alleged Cluff excesses, including $8,000 in film-permit proceeds being spent at Arizona strip clubs and tens of thousands of agency dollars divided among Cluff’s church, his kids’ high school football team, a trip to the Dominican Republic and other eyebrow-raising activities.
The Cluff grand jury made big news last summer even before the transcript was released, since prosecutors in District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office called every single member of the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors to testify. All of them, it turns out, were board members of the agency formed to streamline Los Angeles film permitting — although few of them seemed to realize they were on the board and fewer still admitted to it. The problem was that as board members, they supposedly supervised Cluff, who in turn lavished many of them with hefty campaign contributions, using money raised from permit fees.
A closer look at the grand-jury transcript shows prosecutors had more in their sights than just Cluff, who his defenders say was simply living large to look like a Hollywood player, boost his image and give him enough juice to talk L.A. production companies out of running away to Canada. In the questions — and the answers — the transcript reveals the bent of Cooley’s Public Integrity Division toward ferreting out possible pay-to-play schemes, months before the current contracting scandal forced several insiders from City Hall.
Take, for example, the questioning over charitable donations requested by then-Councilwoman (now state Assemblywoman) Jackie Goldberg, donations that Goldberg said were to offset disruption to the community caused by filming of the 1999 Steve Martin–Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger in Echo Park.
“Fine,” Goldberg said this week, “we’ve been through this in the press 42 times, and now you want to go through it a 43rd?”
In fact, news reports in the days after the transcript became public in September did cite the donations requested by Goldberg. It turns out, though, that one of the agencies receiving the money was LACER, an afterschool program that was set up by Goldberg and her partner, Sharon Stricker, and is run by Stricker (the couple of 28 years married in San Francisco earlier this year).
Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman asked questions that apparently were aimed at determining whether Goldberg, who, along with her council colleagues, sat on the board of the corporation that gave her generous campaign donations, also shook down filming companies for donations to her partner’s charity. He broached the subject with Conrado Terrazas, a former Goldberg staffer who ran unsuccessfully to succeed her. Is it true, Huntsman asked Terrazas, that the right to film in the district “was predicated on contribution to the nonprofit?”
“I guess that’s a matter of opinion,” Terrazas replied. “It was represented to the film companies that Jackie was requesting a contribution to these nonprofits. So, I mean, one could say that that could be, but my understanding was that they were voluntary, voluntary contributions. But from their viewpoint, they didn’t see it that way.”
Huntsman persisted. “They asked if they can do some filming, and they were asked, ‘Will you pay $10,000?’ And then right after that —” “And then right after that,” Terrazas answered, “Jackie approved.”
This kind of thing came up three or four times in his time working for Goldberg in Echo Park, Terrazas said. Huntsman’s follow-up question shows he has something particular on his mind.
“Those were on the occasions where the Department of Transportation contacted her and said, ‘We’re only going to agree to this if you say it’s okay’?” That’s right, Terrazas replied.
“In the case of LACER, which is run by Sharon Striker [sic], who has a personal relationship with Ms. Goldberg, was that recommended by a field rep, or did Ms. Goldberg recommend that one on her own?” Huntsman asked. Terrazas replied that he didn’t know, and Huntsman asked who made the ultimate decision on which charities. “Jackie,” the aide responded.
The subject was pressed further with Delpha Flad, staffer for then-Councilwoman Rita Walters. “It was discussed around City Hall that there were various organizations who would ask for money in exchange for being inconvenienced by the filming,” Flad testified, adding that Walters didn’t do that in her district.
Molly Allen, a freelance location manager who was hired by Universal Studios to take care of things on the ground for Bowfinger, testified that EIDC vice president Mike Bobenko told her “it would be in my best interest to give a donation to Jackie Goldberg’s district.” So she did.
“We made a check out to the Jackie Goldberg educational fund and gave it to the EIDC,” Allen testified. “And then they lost the first one, so we had to do two.”
In Goldberg’s testimony, Huntsman asked whether EIDC had donated $16,000 to her Assembly race. “If you say so, I believe you,” Goldberg replied. Huntsman wanted to know if Goldberg had returned the contributions, and if not, why not?
“If someone informs me it was inappropriate for me to receive them, the money will be returned,” Goldberg told the grand jury.
She also told Huntsman it wasn’t up to her to approve any film shoots in her district. He did not seem convinced. “Really?” he asked. “Not that I’m aware of,” she replied.
Huntsman then asked Goldberg why, if the whole point of the contributions to LACER and other charities in the neighborhood was so that the public would know that their “discomfort and disarray” from shooting was not in vain, why didn’t she publicize the contributions to let the people know what they were getting in return? That, she replied, was the job of the organizations that got the money. But she added, in answer to another Huntsman question, that she wasn’t aware of any publicity on the matter by the organizations either.
Goldberg made clear that Stricker took no salary as executive director of LACER, which witnesses say in the transcript stands for Los Angeles Center for Education Research but which, according to the agency’s Web site, stands for Literacy, Arts, Culture, Education and Recreation. LACER provides afterschool music and arts classes, plus homework assistance and mental-health services, at four Los Angeles middle schools. Highly lauded for its programming, LACER is perpetually short of funds. Goldberg said this week that she and Stricker have lent the agency money so it could make ends meet.
She told Huntsman much the same thing.
“We made the sandwiches in our kitchen,” Goldberg testified. “They swam in our swimming pool. It cost literally thousands of dollars for [Stricker] to work there, believe me.”