A Sad (and Instructional) Story about Corruption

A couple of years ago, my wife was robbed at gunpoint in our driveway. It was a weekday evening; it was dark. Very dark. For reasons no one in City government has ever explained to me and my neighbors, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years) our residential street is the only one in the area without night-time street-lights.

Criminals who steal wallets and cell phones, the police explained as they wrote up my wife’s report, seek darkness. They like to hide in shadows and pounce on unsuspecting victims trapped in cars. “The best thing you can do to prevent crime,” they counseled us, “is to install bright lights along the sidewalks.”

Then that’s what we shall do, our family decided. We’ll alert officials at the Bureau of Public Works, which oversees, among other things, sanitation, street paving, and, yes, street lights. We’ll remind them that our street is dark and dangerous at night. We’ll remind them that pedestrians are being held up by pistol-bearing thugs. They’ll help us, we thought.

Especially since we had a connection at City Hall! One of our friends, call him Mr. J, a man who worked closely with me and my wife on several Filipino cultural events, a “leader” of the Filipino community, had recently been appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti to serve as a commissioner on the Board of Public Works. The position pays more than $160,000, with full benefits. Even better, it allows a committed public servant to do the highly Christian work of actually serving the public. It’s a great job for those whose passion is helping others.

We were convinced that in our time of need — a time of horrible crisis, actually, with my wife seeing a trauma therapist to help ease the haunting memory of having a gun pointed at her face — our friend would take care of us.

So I called him. My wife called him. I sent emails (to two different addresses). My wife sent emails. And a Facebook message.

No reply.

I ran into Mr. J at City Hall one day, while there to appeal the Garcetti administration’s approval of a shopping center to be built directly beside our neighborhood elementary school. He was his usual, gregarious self; a lot of toothy smiles and plenty of familiar butt slaps. I asked him why he hadn’t returned any of our calls and emails, especially since his Filipina “sister” had been treated so roughly.

Mr. J said, “I’ve been very busy.”

We never heard from him again.

Two years later, we learned why Mr. J was too busy to help us get safety lights on our street: He was tending to much more important City business: soliciting “donations” (or bribes, depending on your patience with semantics) from billionaire Chinese real estate developers seeking approvals for their projects.

We know this because it was outlined in a FBI search warrant connected to an ongoing investigation into corruption at City Hall that has (so far) ensnared Mr. J and Mr. J’s wife, Garcetti’s former Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, City Council PLUM Chairman Jose Huizar, PLUM committee member Curren Price (whose wife, Del Richardson, is among the foulest white-collar crooks doing “legal” work on behalf of developers), and a variety of other lowlifes working as aides and factotums to the rich and powerful.

So, whether or not he broke any laws, and whether or not he’ll end up in prison for abusing his position of power, we now know our great friend Mr. J  was too busy to help us get safety lights from the Bureau of Public Works because he was dialing for dollars, making telephone calls to his boss’s political patrons.

Mr. J is not a “bad” person. He’s not a lifelong thief. Mr. J is just another weak, flawed human being seduced by greed, bamboozled by access to power and influence. He’s no worse or better than all the other disappointing hypocrites who occupy positions of political influence. Indeed, the startling ease with which a formerly conscientious member of the community can cross the line into the dark side of corruption is what makes this story so sad. And so instructional.

According to federal records, after Chicago, Los Angeles is the most corrupted major city in America. Anyone who’s lived here for a few years has seen and felt the corruption in their neighborhood, where it manifests in the form of wildly inappropriate building projects fast-tracked by the Mayor, his dysfunctional Planning Department, and the City Council, which votes in unanimous lock-step to approve every plan that comes before them. Corruption starts at the top and trickles down to opportunistic minions.

Now we know that even officials serving on the Board of Public Works are part of the rigged game. The question isn’t: When do we change the players? It’s: When do we change the rules of the game?

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1 Response

  1. Chris Zambon says:

    Michael, I am shocked. I had no idea of this horrible and traumatizing crime to Charmaine. Yes, the corruption starts at the top. I could go on, it’s so demoralizing but when someone you think you can count on fails to do the right thing and falls into an abyss of corruption there is little worse. Also, it is beyond our imagination and understanding how anyone can support Republican leadership.