Developer of Controversial Melrose Avenue Project Funds Duran Re-Election Committee

Ben Soleimani of BMB Investment Corp.
Ben Soleimani

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.


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sheilalightfoot
Guest

So, are all these big money donors – either for these simple $5,000 donations or the more complicated bundling or illegal laundering WEHOville appears to be uncovering – informed covertly OR overtly exactly what their particular cost of doing business in WeHo will be? I keep waiting for someone who has declined the offer to pay up to come forward and reveal that side of these stories. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Chloe Ross
Guest

The moral thing would be for Mr. Duran to withdraw his name from both the race and the council. As I asked on FB – do we have GOP in this race? That should be made clear. Mr. Duran threw the entire Russian community under the bus in one sentence. But he clearly has his admirers. He should not however confuse his position as a council member with his profession as a criminal defense attorney. The former asks for transparency and dedication to the truth; the latter is “yeah -do the crime – pay me and you won’t do the… Read more »

Me
Guest
Me

i’m so sick of this crap….if any of you are interested in forming a group QUICKLY to help inform the public as to what is going on in the remaining days before the election, please email me at takebackweho@aol.com and we’ll set up a meeting….my belief is that most residents have NO IDEA whats happening at city hall and i want to get the message out there…..it’s easy to complain on these websites, but this is a call for ACTION!!!!

Michael Mooney
Guest

It should be illegal for council members to accept donations from companies who benefit from their vote. It’s a conflict of interest. And here it is happening in broad daylight. They don’t even have to hide it. Shame, shame. This is as unethical as the GOP obstructing Obama even though it hurts the country. Politics in this country and this city have become a mockery of ethics.

meister4weho
Guest
meister4weho

@Rudoph: if it is “laundering” rather than “bundling,” it could be that much more intriguing! @Riley, you are not alone. (Some of us post our comments on Facebook.) There are actually two very large contributions to this committee so far – the other being from a company called WHBT, Inc. It’s public — you can find the contribution reports on the City’s website — under Campaign Finance. http://www.weho.org/index.aspx?page=80

Riley
Guest
Riley

I am the only one who is outraged by this story? Where are all the armchair politicos? What has to happen in this City before people will try to stop the corruption? This is tantamount to election rigging. Duran is STILL under investigation for misuse of the credit cards and now he is accepting money from developers and billboard companies. Why, should he get re-elected? Why does he NEED to take so much money from these sources? If he is so well-loved by all wouldn’t he just be a shoe-in? Why would the average voter think this is all “okay”?… Read more »

Woody McBreairty
Guest

I think people have grown very weary of the “it may not be ethical, but it’s not illegal” crock. It only comes down to the character of the candidate, period, real or perceived. The introduction of Measure C for Term Limits is very timely, as is Steve Martin’s candidacy..

Rudolf Martin
Guest
Rudolf Martin

“While such single-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.”

i don’t think it’s illegal, it is called bundling donations and is quite common although clearly unethical.
if you look at John Duran’s latest finance statement (http://weho.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=12115), you will discover a regular bundling bonanza from out-of-town interests.

Woody McBreairty
Guest

If the voters of West Hollywood are fools enough to put Duran back in office, they are asking for a troubled future for this city. We already know who his 2 mercenary cohorts on the council are & this is our chance to reverse course. To me Duran represents the seedy but all too common side of politics that has already cast a dark shadow on our city. West Hollywood deserves better and must demand it. The reputation of our city is increasingly at stake. There are 2 choices in the March 5 election: Steve Martin and ABD – Anybody… Read more »