Developer, Secretary Face Charges in ‘Pay-to-Play' Scheme

A real estate developer -- whose $72 million apartment complex in the Harbor Gateway area was approved three years ago by the Los Angeles City Council -- was charged Friday, along with his secretary, with using straw donors to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of more than a half-dozen local politicians.

Samuel Leung, 67, and Sofia David, 58, are charged with one felony count each of conspiracy to commit campaign money, and he is additionally charged with a felony count of offering to bribe a legislative body member.

He faces up to four years and eight months in state prison if convicted as charged, and David would face a maximum of three years in custody.

The felony complaint alleges that Leung and David "caused multiple individuals working for Leung along with Leung's business partners, Leung's relatives, and relatives of Leung's employees and business partners, to make campaign contributions to Los Angeles area politicians with the power and ability to change zoning rules, specifically an industrially zoned property located at 1311 W. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, which Leung wished to develop into an apartment complex."

The complaint alleges that the contributions included payments to candidates for office, re-election campaigns and payments to political action committees and office holder accounts, including the campaigns of then-Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who is now a county supervisor, City Council members Joe Buscaino, Mitch Englander, Jose Huizar, Gil Cedillo and Nury Martinez, and a political action committee affiliated with Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The complaint also alleges that Leung and David "caused multiple campaign contributors in Los Angeles County to be unlawfully reimbursed for their campaign contributions," and that Leung used pseudonyms and aliases as well as a co-worker's identity without her knowledge or permission to make campaign contributions between 2009 and 2015 to current and prospective Los Angeles-area politicians "who had the power to vote on zoning rules affecting property he owned."

The prosecution alleges that tens of thousands of dollars were contributed by more than two-dozen people and companies connected to Leung over a seven-year period beginning in 2009. State law bars contributions to a political campaign using someone else's name. Leung's 352-unit Sea Breeze project was eventually approved by the Los Angeles City Council in February 2015. Garcetti and the City Council overruled planning commission officials in changing zoning rules to allow the project to move forward.

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times identified some of the donors as being working-class residents without the obvious financial means to pay $500 or more to a political campaign. Leung told the newspaper that he did not reimburse any campaign contributions and declined to comment further. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission opened an investigation into the campaign contributions after receiving a complaint letter in October 2016.

Over the prosecution's objection, Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan allowed Leung to remain free on his own recognizance while awaiting arraignment April 11 at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse. The judge ordered Leung to surrender his passport, directed him not to travel outside the seven counties of Southern California, to be booked by law enforcement and to use only his true name.

Prosecutors had asked that Leung's bail be set at $20,000, with Deputy District Attorney Russell Moore calling the charges "serious." Defense attorney Daniel Nixon told the judge that Leung is a U.S. citizen who has lived in Los Angeles for 40 years, has no criminal record and appeared in court within hours of being notified that the case had been filed.

He said it was clear that his client is "not a flight risk." An arrest warrant has been issued for David, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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