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When a Billionaire Requests a Meeting

Katzenberg got a meeting with another city councilmember this week in less than an hour, proving that deep pockets and a PR machine lead to easier avenues of influence.

Jeffrey Katzenberg at the 2014 World Travel & Tourism Council's Global Summit in Hainan, China. He wears a dark blue suit and sits in a beige chair against a navy back drop. He holds a microphone and smiles.
Jeffrey Katzenberg talking at the 2014 World Travel & Tourism Council’s Global Summit in Hainan, China. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Jeffrey would very much like the opportunity to connect with him as we have been touring the city and meeting with members to learn about homelessness. He will be in City Hall tomorrow afternoon and wondered if there might be time for him to come by?” wrote Jennifer Lin to Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s office on June 24 of this year. Less than an hour later, Gil Cedillo’s Chief of Staff responded. 

Katzenberg’s money and Hollywood caché seems to have earned him an inordinately quick response from Los Angeles’ city councilmembers, while members of the public who have less and less access to public comment at meetings, are treated differently at the supposedly closed City Hall and largely ignored when they try to reach out to officials. Perhaps those are the perks of having a powerful PR firm (staffed with many of Katzenberg’s former DreamWorks employees) and a monied venture capital group reaching out to city officials on Katzenberg’s behalf.

The LA Times reported on June 30 that Katzenberg met with at least six other city councilmembers before reaching out to Cedillo, and that his suggestions for the city’s homelessness crisis included “regulating sidewalks that surrounded schools and parks — areas where children are present.” Mere weeks after Katzenberg’s meeting tour began, the City Council put forward an ordinance amending section code 41.18 that bans sitting, sleeping, lying, or storing property within up to 500 feet of a “sensitive use property” — which is defined as a school, day care center, public park, or library. 

The ordinance, which will go into effect on September 3, criminalizes homelessness during a time where there are incredibly limited housing resources, making strict enforcement of the ordinance likely unconstitutional under the Martin v. Boise ruling. The ordinance also allows for each city councilmember to pick and choose zones to enforce within their own district. One hundred advocacy groups filled with thousands of constituents in Los Angeles signed on to oppose the City Council vote to amend 41.18. In the end, only two councilmembers — Raman and Bonin — voted to oppose it. 

Meanwhile, Jennifer Lin — who previously worked at Katzenberg’s DreamWorks — manages government relations strategy for Gonring Lin Spahn, a PR firm that says it works with “non-profit organizations, high net worth individuals, and corporations looking to deepen their impact and make a difference in their communities.” The president of that firm, Andy Spahn, also previously worked as head of corporate affairs and communications at DreamWorks, where he was a “liaison” to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. The firm’s CEO of GLS, Jennifer Gonring, also serves on the California Film Commission. The amendment to 41.18 also makes it illegal to be resting, sleeping, sitting, or storing property near a city-permitted activity, which includes film shoots. This can also be enforced on September 3 without any notification or signage. 

When entering the website for GLS, the viewer is splashed with a picture of former President Barack Obama sitting next to Bill Clinton, with the words “From Hollywood to the Hill, we’ve been there.” splashed next to them. Jennifer Lin was careful to list a “PS” in her letter that listed, point-by-point, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Hollywood bonafides as well as the bountiful money he’s accrued over the course of his career. 

After Councilmember Cedillo’s office responded to Jennifer Lin that they had that opening at August 10 at City Hall at 2:30 PM, a staffer from the “Office of Jeffrey Katzenberg,” with an email linked to Jennifer Lin, added to the email chain to coordinate, requesting the meeting be moved “off-site” and that “lunch or breakfast” would be good for Jeffrey. His staffers also requested an off-site meeting on homelessness with Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, explaining that it would be their preference. That meeting ended up happening at high-end Italian restaurant Jon & Vinny’s. O’Farrell’s office got back to the staffer about an hour after their initial email was sent. The staffer had also worked at DreamWorks, and their email was linked to Katzenberg’s venture capital investment firm, WndrCo, whose portfolio includes apps, the media company Axios, and a subscription-based outdoor children’s school, among other things. Katzenberg was careful to tell the LA Times that he is “acutely aware of what he doesn’t know,” and Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority Executive Director Heidi Marston said essentially the same thing. Marston said that Katzenberg also planned to go with her to do outreach.

In the hallway outside of Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s office in City Hall, after Gil Cedillo nervously asked his staff if Jeffrey Katzenberg’s parking had been taken care of, Katzenberg said that he had been “out and about, listening and learning and reading. I probably know more than I should.” Councilmember Cedillo and an unknown woman who arrived with Katzenberg laughed at this remark. 

I identified myself as a journalist, and requested an interview with Katzenberg. Katzenberg declined, saying “I am just here for an off-the-record meeting.” When Katzenberg, Councilmember Cedillo, and the unknown woman made it to the office door, Cedillo opened it and said “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how.” I took this to mean that he was apologizing for me being present and aware of this meeting. 

Katzenberg entered the office at 2:33 PM, and at around 3:38 PM, I was accosted by two LAPD officers — Pete Echevarria (34633) and Richard Castillo (41733) — who asked for my personal information and for me to leave the building. I cannot say for sure how long that meeting lasted beyond that hour. They insisted on following me out of the public building that Jeffrey Katzenberg was welcome in — a building in which other meetings were happening concurrently. One of the officers was wearing a mask only over his mouth, and I demanded that only one officer follow me into the elevator. 

After leaving City Hall, I returned and requested a commanding officer to further explain why I was being told to leave City Hall. Sergeant John Valdez (30070) came inside to the supposedly closed-due-to-COVID-19-restrictions building not wearing a mask, and first told me that there was a “private function” I was disturbing. He then said he was going upstairs to Councilmember Cedillo’s office, came back down and told me that I wasn’t supposed to be there (again, without citing any specific law) and confirmed that the office of Councilmember Cedillo specifically called to have me removed. I asked if there was a media area he could direct me to, and he said “outside of the front door.”

Valdez, charged with securing Los Angeles City Hall, also belongs to a racist, alt-right, antisemitic Facebook group that has valorized Pinochet and posted disturbing memes about killing Muslims, among other things. Knock LA reached out to the LAPD to attempt to confirm that these are all the same Sergeant John Valdez and did not receive comment by the time of publishing, but we were able to confirm it independently with reporter Will Carless, who first broke the story about Valdez’s offensive social media history, and emailed Chief Michel Moore with his findings.

In 2014, Jeffrey Katzenberg worked with multi-millionaire Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff to raise $1 million for the Los Angeles Police Foundation in an initiative to buy more surveillance equipment and body cameras for the LAPD. Much like Katzenberg’s “off-the-record” meetings with city officials, the money that the police foundation spends isn’t subject to public scrutiny. Katzenberg’s specific donation sum was undisclosed, and we’ll never know how much he donated. Of course, the LAPD turned their body cameras on when they forced me out of the building. Katzenberg is also friends with former Relativity Media CEO and billionaire Ryan Kavanaugh, who is a financier of the effort to recall Councilmember Mike Bonin, which is a largely reactionary, right-wing, segregationist movement in response to city’s homelessnesess crisis. The views of the people in charge of who is allowed to access political capital are disturbingly clear. 

Katzenberg may or may not be ultimately responsible for the vote to amend 41.18, nor is he solely to blame for the inadequacies of city officials and their lack of communication with the public, or the increased surveillance in public spaces in Los Angeles. It’s possible that we may never find out what he says in these meetings, or how much sway he has over officials. Yet, the fact that we may never know is news in itself. There is a pattern of intent with Jeffrey Katzenberg’s political activities, and also with how public officials treat their interactions with him, and that pattern is one of secrecy, hushed tones, and surprise that anyone would dare to inquire as to what this billionaire wants. The other clear part of the pattern with Jeffrey Katzenberg — and his billionaire buddy Ryan Kavanaugh — is that they have clear opinions on who public lands in this city belong to, and it isn’t us. 

The office of Councilmember Gil Cedillo did not respond for comment for this article. We reached out to Jeffrey Katzenberg through the same contacts that reached out on his behalf to Gil Cedillo’s office. They did not respond to comment on this article.