In a City Council campaign dominated by donations from real estate interests outside of West Hollywood, at least one person listed as giving the maximum donation professes ignorance about that donation, the candidate and the campaign.
Jose Medina, a carpenter from Cali, Columbia, whose modest home on Kenmore Avenue on the fringe of Koreatown sits five miles from West Hollywood, was perplexed when WEHOville asked him about the $500 contribution he allegedly made to the campaign of Councilmember John Duran. WEHOville interviewed Medina Saturday as part of research it is conducting into the origins of donations to the West Hollywood City Council campaign, many from distant sources with no obvious connection to the community.
Medina, who has worked for 12 years as a carpenter for Huntington Holdings, a major real estate investor, said he had never heard of Duran and was unaware of the West Hollywood City Council campaign. His wife, present during the interview, suggested that the donation probably was made in his name by Jack Corwin, CEO of Huntington Holdings, a Beverly Hills firm that is an investor in commercial rental properties, vacation properties and high-end residential renovation projects. Corwin also has made the maximum donation of $500 to the Duran campaign. WEHOville also contacted Halina Foltyn, a housekeeper for Huntington Holdings who lives in a modest apartment in Sherman Oaks and who, like Medina, also is listed as having made a $500 donation on Jan. 9 to the Duran campaign. Foltyn refused to respond to WEHOville’s questions.
Jack Corwin told WEHOville that he has not made contributions in the names of his employees, although he noted that he had made a donation of $500, in his own name, to the Duran campaign. When asked about the Medinas’ assumption that the donation in Jose Medina’s name was made by him, Corwin said: “It’s absolutely not true.” Corwin declined to speculate on how or why lower-level workers for his firm who live well outside of West Hollywood would make such relatively large donations to a City Council candidate.
Gary Winuk, Chief of the Enforcement Division of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said that a donation made in the name of another person without that person’s knowledge or not involving that person’s money constitutes “campaign money laundering.” That is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.
Duran did not responde to calls from WEHOville seeking comment on Jose Medina’s contention that the donation made in his name didn’t come from him. Duran’s campaign consultant Steve Afriat said that if there was found to be wrongdoing on the developer’s part, Duran would return the money.
The donations by Huntington employees are among a number of contributions unearthed by WEHOville in its continuing review of finance reports from the 2011 and 2013 City Council campaigns that show creative and possibly illegal ways around the city’s donation limit. That limit is $500 from any individual or entity to any particular candidate in a city political campaign, a reduction from the $1,000 limit in place until 2009.
For example, the city ordinance permits “bundling,” a practice in which campaign fundraisers or friends or supporters of a candidate encourage others to contribute to the candidate. That practice is legal so long as the donors use their own money and don’t channel money through their accounts from other donors who have hit their donation limit. Several residents involved in local politics, however, mention having been approached and asked to make donations for which others will supply the cash. Each said that he declined.
The city ordinance also permits a spouse or children aged 18 or over to make a contribution of up to $500 in his or her own name without running afoul of the limit previously met by a parent or husband or wife. The result in that campaign finance reports list “homemakers” and “students” in distant cities who donate the max to local candidates despite having no evident connection to them. In many cases, research by WEHOville shows, they are children or spouses of someone with business interests — usually real estate — in West Hollywood who already has met his or her maximum donation. They almost always donate to incumbents.
For example, there’s the contribution of $500 from a “homemaker” in Rancho Palos Verdes to John Duran’s campaign. A little digging identifies her husband as an executive with a billboard company with interests on Sunset Boulevard who already has reached his $500 limit to the Duran campaign. Then there’s the aging socialite in Dallas, some 1,300 miles away, who gave $500 to Duran. Her son is a local real estate developer who already had reached his donation max.
Such donations, all legal, aren’t exclusive to the Duran campaign. The Mani brothers, who live in Beverly Hills but have significant real estate holdings in West Hollywood, had their wives chip in $500 each to Abbe Land’s 2011 council campaign after they reached their own legal limits. Four members of the Soroudi family, whose patriarch, Behnam, has extensive real estate interests through his Ruby Group, Harper Enterprises and other companies, donated $500 each to the 2011 election campaigns of incumbents Lindsey Horvath, John Heilman and Land and a total of $1,500 to challenger John D’Amico, who defeated Horvath. For the 2013 campaign, they’ve donated $2,500 to Duran, enlisting a fifth family member, Rachel Soroudi, a student at USC’s Marshall School of Business who is set to graduate in 2016. To date, the Soroudis have given Jeffrey Prang $1,000.
Then there is the establishment of campaign committees to support a particular candidate that ostensibly operate separately from the candidate’s own campaign, also perfectly legal and a way for donors to give beyond the individual donation limit. An example is the recently announced committee to support John Duran that is funded with $10,000 from BMB Investment Corp., which is working on a controversial development project on Melrose Avenue supported by Duran, and by W.H.B.T., owner of Micky’s, the gay bar in Boystown, near to which have been staged the city-sponsored Go Go Dancer Appreciation Day and Mayan End of the World festivals, both championed by Duran.
Through Jan. 19, the last date for which donations have been reported, the nine candidates for two seats on the West Hollywood City Council have amassed $217,727 in donations. The largest recipient is Duran, with $89,885 (which includes the $10,000 independent committee donation). Seventy-three percent of his donations are from sources whose addresses identify them as being outside West Hollywood, and 48 percent are from real estate interests.
Mayor Jeffrey Prang ranks second, with donations of $55,550, 54 percent from outside of WeHo and 30 percent from real estate interests. Ranking third in donations from others is challenger Sam Borelli, with $20,358 in donations, 52 percent from outside WeHo. Borelli has booked no significant real estate donations. Fourth is Christopher Landavazo, whose $26,151 war chest includes a loan of $9,000 to himself. Forty-five percent of his donations come from outside WeHo and few are from real estate interests. Challenger Steve Martin reported $21,118 in campaign funds, including loans of $13,700 to himself, with minimal contributions from outside WeHo or from real estate interests. Challengers Nick Garzilli, Tristan Schukraft and Tom DeMille did not report independent contributions of more than $1,000.