EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with corrected data that shows a total of $79,513 in donations, with only 12% of that coming from real estate interests, in support of Lauren Meister’s re-election campaign.
An analysis of donations made to candidates in the 2019 West Hollywood City Council election shows that, despite what Paul McCartney might have said, some donors seem to believe that money can buy them
The analysis is based on campaign finance reports filed in 2018 and those filed as of July 31, 2019, the deadline for filing this year. Of the $638,422 donated to directly to candidates’ campaigns or to independent expenditure committees (IEC) or political action committees (PAC) supporting particular candidates, 40% came from real estate developers and their lawyers and lobbyists, traditionally the biggest donors in West Hollywood City Council election campaigns. Most major real estate development projects (and some small ones) require some sort of variance to the city’s existing zoning regulations.
Another large category of campaign donors was a new one: The cannabis industry, which accounted for 8% of all donations. While the city already has approved applicants for 40 cannabis licenses across five categories, the four current holders of temporary recreational cannabis licenses who failed to qualify in the selection process are expected to continue to lobby the City Council to void the decision by the independent review board and grant them licenses. They are anticipated to be major donors in the November 2020 City Council election.
Donations from the billboard industry accounted for 10% of the total. Billboard companies must get city approval to erect new signs, and the city currently is working its way through a plan to increase the number of signs allowed on Sunset Boulevard.
Mayor John D’Amico and City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath were the biggest beneficiaries of real estate developer money. Horvath benefitted from $72,000 going directly to her campaign and to an IEC supporting her (that was 34% of $209,656 in donations in support of her re-election.) For D’Amico, real estate donations had a bigger impact, with
D’Amico and Horvath also got the most support from the cannabis industry. D’Amico benefitted from a total of $22,450 in donations directly to his campaign and to a PAC supporting him – an amount equal to 13% of all donations in support of his campaign. Horvath’s bid for re-election attracted $16,300 from cannabis companies, which was 8% of all donations on her behalf. Meister’s campaign attracted only $1,000 in support from cannabis businesses
Billboard companies such as E.T. Legg, Ace Outdoor and Orange Barrel Media donated a total of $64,000 to the three incumbents or to PACs or IECs supporting them. Of that amount, 38% went to support D’Amico ($23,833), 34% ($21,333) went to support Horvath and 14% ($8,833) went to support Meister, who received only $500 as a direct donation from a billboard company.
Here are the answers to some questions West Hollywood residents might ask about the funding of this year’s City Council election:
What was the average amount of a donation to each of the candidates?
John D’Amico came in first with each of his 307 direct donations averaging $355. For Lindsey Horvath, it was an average of $338 for each of her 432 direct donations. Those two incumbents were followed by Marquita Thomas, whose 57 donations averaged $261 each, and then Lauren Meister, with an average of $246 for each of her 212 donations. James Duke Mason also averaged $264 for each of his 198 direct donations. For Sepi Shyne, the average was $233 for each of her 107 direct donations.
To what candidate were West Hollywood residents most likely to donate?
That would be Lauren Meister, 78% of whose 212 donations directly to her campaign came from West Hollywood residents. For John D’Amico, 27% (83) of direct donations to his campaign came from local residents. For the rest of the six candidates who actually got donations, the percentages were 21% (42) for James Duke Mason, 13% (57) for Lindsey Horvath, 12% (7) for Marquita Thomas, and 7% (8) for Sepi Shyne.
Who were the biggest real estate interest donors?
The biggest real estate donors to individual candidates and to IECs and PACs supporting them were Daniel and Simon Mani of Mani Brothers along with members of their families. They donated a total of $12,700, with all but $500 of that going to support John D’Amico and Lindsey Horvath (James Duke Mason got the $500 donation). The Mani Brothers are owners of the five biggest office buildings in West Hollywood and recently have been revealed to be donors to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, which has upset some residents who have called for the candidates to return the donations.
The next biggest donors were Jason Illoulian’s Faring along with members of the Illoulian family. They donated a total of $9,450. Those donations went to John D’Amico, Lindsey Horvath and Marquita Thomas, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2019 election whose candidacy was promoted by Faring and Jake Stevens, the company’s director of community engagement. Thomas received $1,450 from Faring and the Illoulians, which amounted to 10% of her total donations. Faring has been involved in a number of West Hollywood projects, including the Robertson Lane hotel and retail project, the proposed French Market project, and a proposal to build a 10-story cancer center on the corner of Beverly and Robertson boulevards.
The Faring/Illoulian donations were followed by the $4,800 donated by Behnan (Ben) Soroudi and his Ruby Group and members of the Soroudi family. With the exception of $1,000 that went to James Duke Mason, the rest of the money went to incumbents John D’Amico ($2,000) and Lindsey Horvath ($1,800). The Soroudis are behind several projects, the largest of which is the building proposed for 8555 Santa Monica Blvd. that would include apartments, office space, restaurants, and retail space.
Ranking fourth was Latham & Watkins, a law firm whose Jim Arnone has represented many developers before the City Council. Attorneys at Latham & Watkins donated a total of $7,350 to individual candidates and IEC’s supporting them. The largest amount, $4,000, was donated in support of D’Amico’s campaign, following by $3,100 in support of Horvath and $250 in support of James Duke Mason. Ranking fifth was Alpine Equities, which owns the property occupied by Crescent Heights Methodist Church and plans to convert it to an office space with a five-story apartment building behind it. Alpine, donated $4,000 to the campaigns of D’Amico and Horvath and to an IEC that campaigned for them.
Who were the biggest billboard owners who donated?
Ace Outdoor was at the top of the list, with a total of $6,500 donated by people associated with it. That was followed by donations of $5,500 from those connected to Big Outdoor and $5,500 from those connected to E.T. Legg. Clear Channel donated only $500.
Which Council members donated to their fellow Council members or other candidates?
Councilmember John Heilman donated $500 to Lindsey Horvath’s campaign and $350 to James Duke Mason’s campaign. City Councilmember John Duran donated $500 to John D’Amico’s campaign and $250 to the campaigns of Lindsey Horvath and Lauren Meister. D’Amico donated $500 to Meister’s re-election campaign and $100 to Horvath’s. Meister donated $350 to D’Amico’s campaign. Horvath did not donate to any campaign.
Did any donations come from controversial sources?
The controversy is still brewing, but the recent revelation on Facebook that the Mani brothers, owners of West Hollywood’s major office buildings, in April donated to Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign will likely make their donations to the campaigns of City Council members controversial. D’Amico’s campaign received $1,500 from members of the Mani family and Horvath’s received $700. However, an IEC formed by the Mani brothers to support D’Amico and Horvath spent $10,000 promoting their campaigns, meaning D’Amico benefitted from $6,500 in contributions from the Mani family and Horvath benefitted from $5,700. James Duke Mason received $500.
Will, as some residents have demanded, D’Amico and Horvath return those donations because of the Mani brothers support for Trump, someone Horvath, in particular, has taken a strong and public stand against?
Horvath, interviewed on Friday as she joined a protest against Equinox gym owner Stephen Ross for his donations to Trump and his plan to host a major fundraiser for him, said she believed people have the right to donate to whom they choose and noted that she had a close relationship with Daniel Mani. She didn’t respond to a question as to whether she would return the donations.
D’Amico, in a text message responding to a question from WEHOville, said “donations from the Mani Brothers do not for me rise to the same level of concern (as the fundraiser hosted by Ross for Trump.) Their donations (info which I have not seen directly) to the GOP or Donald Trump’s campaign happened a while ago I would assume? And they were from their personal/professional funds to a candidate. They do not necessarily get a pass for sending dollars to the GOP at a time when people in West Hollywood are harmed and concerned about the direction of our federal government under a Trump presidency. And I cannot return donations to the Mani’s or anyone else for that matter. My campaign accounts are closed. Those dollars were accepted and spent campaigning. There are no funds to return. And to give those dollars from my personal account would violate FPPC rules of funding campaign activities outside of a campaign account. But as you know Keith and I make donations each year to organizations that provide services and support people in making their lives better – including LGBT organizations.
D’Amico said that accepting money from Trump donors such as the Mani brother was a different matter than deciding whether to boycott Ross’s Equinox gym “But for me this is the critical difference – developer Stephen Ross, chairman of Related Companies has used dollars gathered at businesses that reach out directly to LGBT people promising (though now it seems not) an environment and a business ethic that is free from discrimination in exchange for a full embrace of the LGBT community.
“And more critically, this high dollar Trump fundraiser comes on the back of 250+ mass shootings in America and a summer of Trump hate including a rise in white supremacy fostered by the ignorance and prodding of the very person Mr. Ross is fundraising for. Who could support that?”
Councilmember John Heilman, who has been a regular recipient of donations from the Mani brothers in past elections, said: “Any money they donated to prior campaigns has been spent. I have family members who, to my dismay, voted for Trump. I wouldn’t return money they donated either.” Councilmember John Duran, also a regular recipient of campaign donations from the Mani brothers and someone who has solicited their donations to his charity, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, did not respond to WEHOville’s text. Councilmember Lauren Meister has not received donations from the Mani brothers.
How does WEHOville figure out the interests (e.g. real estate development, city vending contracts, cannabis licenses) of individual donors?
The entire process is complicated, largely because of problems with the City of West Hollywood’s Netfile online campaign finance filing system. The city’s website does not explain the details of how to download and assess the data. For example, while it offers an option to download all data and an option to download amended data, it does not explain the difference between those. It also does not note that some candidates or committees can file their reports as paper documents or PDF documents and thus their financial contributions will not appear in the download of digital data. WEHOville acknowledges that there may be minor errors in data because of problems such as slightly obscured numbers in downloaded PDF documents or contradictions between downloaded data and that viewed on a PDF file. Candidates or their representatives who note any errors are asked to contact me immediately so that I can correct them by texting 917.335.6962.
WEHOville researches donors and then assigns them to particular categories. For example, lawyers working with Latham & Watkins are assigned to the real estate development category. That’s because most of the lawyers who donate do not live in West Hollywood or have associations with local businesses. However, Latham’s Jim Arnone does represent developers before the West Hollywood City Council and Planning Commission. He is limited to a donation of no more than $500 to a particular candidate, but other members of his law firm can make their own individual donations of $500 to candidates who may be making decisions on matters that Arnone brings before them on behalf of his clients. Lobbyists who focus on real estate developers also are included in that category. And so are relatives of prominent real estate interests who give the maximum donation to a City Council candidate even though they may live as far away as New York City or Dallas and have no evident connection to West Hollywood, other than that their father or brother is seeking approval of a project proposed for WeHo. WEHOville does not include real estate agents in the real estate development category.
Those assigned to the other categories are chosen according to the same standards.
What was all that money actually spent on?
That is the next question that WEHOville will be answering in days to come.