Our City Is Consumed by Corruption. We Need a City Attorney Who Will Clean It Up.
Let’s not mince words: Los Angeles city politics is corrupt at its highest levels.
October 9, Angelenos got to eavesdrop on the conversations our most powerful elected officials hold behind closed doors: former Council President Nury Martinez (who has since resigned from council), Councilmember Kevin de León, and Councilmember Gil Cedillo, along with former LA Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, shamelessly traded racist slurs, anti-Black rhetoric, homophobic smears, antisemitic insults, and a variety of other bigoted statements, all as they were scheming to minimize the political power of the Black community, renters, and an AAPI councilmember through the redistricting process.
This sort of corruption is dispiritingly familiar in City Hall. In the past two years alone, two council members, Mark Ridley-Thomas and José Huizar, have been brought up on federal charges for corruption and bribery, while a third, Mitch Englander, was sentenced to 14 months in prison for lying to federal agents about accepting illegal cash payments in Las Vegas. A fourth councilmember, John Lee, was part of the trip where Englander accepted the illegal cash payments, but was never charged.
Meanwhile, the current city attorney’s office has been consumed by a scandal over outside counsel’s misconduct in a lawsuit on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power which metastasized into a fraud and extortion scheme that has resulted in multiple federal convictions.
Yet even with scandal after scandal, there remains an unapologetic culture of impunity in City Hall, an assuredness that insiders will protect each other from accountability.
But what if there was a strong, independent city watchdog dedicated to rooting out corruption in City Hall and holding the powerful to account? Fortunately, that office already exists — if we elect the right leadership.
In Los Angeles, our city attorney is independently elected by the people and is thus directly accountable to the people. As the People’s Attorney, the city attorney is vested with the power to act as a civic overseer who can, on the public’s behalf, sue other powerful abusers such as corporate polluters, exploitative employers, and irresponsible slumlords.
By the same token, the City Attorney is vested with the power to protect the integrity of the City itself. The City Charter designates the LA city attorney as the attorney for the City — not the personal attorney for city councilmembers who threaten its democratic foundation. Thus, the city attorney has the power, and indeed responsibility, to “initiate appropriate legal proceedings on behalf of the City” to redress legal violations that cause the City harm.
There is no greater injury to the City than corruption, which undermines the very integrity of its institutions and destroys the public’s trust in local democracy. In particular, the redistricting process impacts the political power and voice of the City’s many communities for a full decade. As the tapes reveal, that redistricting process was deeply corrupted by racism. The next LA city attorney can, and must, open a priority investigation into the corruption of this redistricting process immediately upon taking office, as well as collaborate with the state’s recently opened investigation.
The two candidates running to be the next LA city attorney have taken polar opposite positions on fighting City Hall corruption. Civil rights attorney Faisal Gill has long pledged that fighting corruption will be one of his top priorities, stating that he “will never hesitate to hold corrupt politicians accountable for abuses of power.” Within hours of news breaking of the racist statements made by Councilmembers Martinez, De León, and Cedillo as they plotted LA’s redistricting lines, Gill unequivocally called for their resignation and promised to launch an investigation into the redistricting process on Day 1 as city attorney.
Meanwhile former corporate transactional attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto has backed away from anti-corruption work, stating that “[t]he City Attorney cannot prosecute an individual officer of the City,” though she cites no legal precedent for her laissez-faire position. After Sunday’s news broke, Feldstein Soto denounced the councilmembers’ bigoted statements, but she did not call them out by name and initially stopped short of calling for their resignations from council. Most significantly, she did not pledge that she would take any action against this blatant corruption if elected city attorney. Rather, she attempted to fob off that responsibility to the California attorney general, dodging any role for the city attorney, either as a leader or supporter of an investigation. Only after the Attorney General announced an investigation did Feldstein Soto state, without providing any specifics, that she would “use every tool in the city attorney’s toolkit to help get that done right.” Through her actions and statements, she has made it clear that she does not consider fighting City Hall corruption to be core part of the city attorney’s job description and will not vigorously pursue that work if elected.
Fighting the corruption and structural racism that has long plagued City Hall will be one of the most important jobs of the next Los Angeles city attorney. Disclaiming this role and calling on others to do the job instead only reinforces the sense of immunity from consequences that corrupt political insiders have long relied upon.
So this November, let’s choose the city attorney who has the courage to take on the job of fighting corruption at the very top: Faisal Gill.
Marissa Roy is a civil rights attorney; a former deputy city attorney in the Affirmative Litigation Division of the LA city attorney’s office; and a member of the Los Angeles City Attorney Coalition.
Knock LA is a journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA, which has endorsed Faisal Gill for City Attorney. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.