UPDATE: 9:25 A.M. A newly formed campaign committee funded in part by BMB Investment Corp., the real estate development firm behind a controversial project on Melrose Avenue, is backing West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran
“Friends of West Hollywood, A Committee Supporting John Duran for City Council 2013” filed a donation report with the city clerk’s office last Thursday (Feb. 7) showing that it had received a donation of $5,000 from BMB Investment Corp., which is controlled by Ben Soleimani. Soleimani, a Beverly Hills resident with major business interests in West Hollywood, has been dubbed “The Mayor of Melrose” by the Los Angeles Times, which profiled him in 2010. “For the better part of the past 10 years, he has been helping to transform the five-block stretch of Melrose Avenue between La Cienega and San Vicente into one of L.A.’s most stylish hamlets,” the Times story said.
Another donation report, just made public, shows an additional contribution of $5,000 from WHBT Inc., owner of Micky’s, the bar and nightclub at 8857 Santa Monica Blvd., near Larrabee. Mickys sparked controversy in November 2012 when it cancelled at the last minute a party scheduled by supporters of a campaign to put a City Council term limits proposal on the March 2012 ballot. Council candidate Steve Martin, a term limits supporter, said the last minute cancellation was the result of pressure by Duran on Mickys.
Soleimani in 1991 opened Mansour, a showroom for his family’s rug business, at 8600 Melrose near Westbourne in West Hollywood. It is said to be the largest rug retailer in the world. Through BMB Investment he has developed other property along Melrose, including buildings housing Kitson, the apparel store, and Waterworks, which sells upscale sinks and other bathroom fixtures. BMB’s plan to build a 30,000 square foot showroom building with space for Restoration Hardware, the furniture retailer, was approved by the West Hollywood City Council in May 2012 in a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Jeffrey Prang and Councilmember John D’Amico opposing.
The West Hollywood West Residents Association (WHWRA) opposed the project, arguing that the inclusion of retail space and an underground garage for 130 cars meant it would contribute to traffic congestion in the area. WHWRA took the city to court in September 2012, arguing that critical changes were made in the project at the last minute that required an environmental impact report. The Los Angeles County Superior Court rejected WHWRA’s petition to stop the project. Councilmember Duran had supported BMB’s arguments for the project, saying that distinctions residents made between wholesale and retail usage weren’t relevant.
The Friends of West Hollywood Committee will be required to support Duran’s campaign without coordinating its efforts with him or his campaign advisor, Steve Afriat. Duran and Mayor Jeffrey Prang are facing seven challengers in the March 5 election for two seats on the council. The Friends of West Hollywood committee lists its address as Crescent Heights Plaza on Santa Monica Boulevard. The phone number it lists is the cell phone number of George T. Urch, a campaign consultant and publicist based in Orange County who has strong ties to the Democratic Party.
Single-donor and limited-donor campaign committees are not unprecedented. Lamar Advertising, the billboard company, set up such a committee in 2010 with a donation of $23,150. Lamar opposed a proposal that would have imposed a seven percent excise tax on billboards and allowed so-called “tall wall” signs on the sides of large buildings on Sunset Boulevard. The Lamar committee gave donations to various candidates for state office and donations of $500 each to Councilmembers Abbe Land and John Heilman. It also gave a donation of $15,000 to the Concerned Neighbors Against Illegal Billboards PAC. That PAC, funded by other billboard interests such as CBS Outdoor, Van Wagner Communications and Clear Channel Outdoor, raised $204,561 for a campaign guided by Steve Afriat, the campaign consultant for Land, Heilman, Duran and Prang. The council declined to put the measure on the March 2011 ballot. Van Wagner, the New York City-based billboard company, also established its own committee in February 2011 and made a total of $44,142 in donations, including $30,142 to the Concerned Neighbors PAC and $1,000 to Prang for Assembly 2012, the fundraising entity for Mayor Prang’s unsuccessful run for a state Assembly position.
Another single donor committee, Friends of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, was established in October 2010 and funded with $46,000 by Manochehr Nazarian, owner of Westside Wholesale Electric. His committee donated $500 each to Land, D’Amico, Heilman and unsuccessful candidates Steve Martin, Lindsey Horvath and Scott Schmidt in the March 2011 election for three seats on the city council.
While such donor committees are legal, donations by individuals, businesses and organizations directly to a particular candidate in a West Hollywood city council race are limited by local law to $500. It is not uncommon, however, for donors to get around those restrictions by funneling donations through employees, family members and friends, an illegal practice known as money laundering when it is done without an actual financial contribution from the named donor.