Back in August, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with a headline that was foreboding for one L.A. County’s biggest proposed developments: “Billion-dollar Beverly Hills development challenged because of ex-mayor’s lobbying.” Last week, it ran a story entitled “China’s Wanda Group accused of funneling foreign money into Beverly Hills ballot measure.”
The two stories have a common factor: A Sacramento lawyer named Gary Winuk, who was the first to bring the allegations in both instances. His motivations, and possible links to a major L.A. developer, are now coming under scrutiny.
Over the summer, Winuk sent the first letter, on behalf of “anonymous citizens,” to former Beverly Hills mayor Barry Brucker, who had registered as a lobbyist on behalf of the One Beverly Hills project, a proposed hotel and condo development from Wanda Group’s Beverly Hills subsidiary and its development partner Athens Group. The letter, which was made public by the Times, claims that Brucker violated a city policy preventing former officials from working as paid lobbyists for projects that they voted on while in office. Brucker resigned, but said he only did so out of “an abundance of caution,” because he had voted when the site was under different ownership with a different plan, and believed that exempt him.
Last week, Winuk returned to the pages of the Times — this time as a representative of a hotel workers labor union. He alleged that the Chinese company is illegally “funneling money” into a campaign committee formed to oppose competing developer Beny Alagem’s ballot measure.
Dubbed Measure HH, the initiative would allow Alagem’s Oasis West Realty to bypass the usual city planning review process to build a 26-story condo tower that would become the tallest building in the density-averse city. Alagem’s campaign has focused largely on a garden that would be included on the side, without revealing any renderings that show the tower unobstructed. Accordingly, Wanda’s opposition campaign has focused on the height of the building. The “No on HH” campaign, openly funded by Wanda and Athens, even created its own rendering of its competitor’s tower to show how it would stand out against its surroundings, The Real Deal reported.
A spokesman for Wanda dismissed the complaint from Unite Here Local 11, the Southern California chapter of a labor union, and said Wanda had not actually received the letter, only learning of it in the Times.
“This is a campaign fully funded and controlled by American interests with no foreign control or money in any way, shape or form,” Adam Englander told the Times, calling the letter an attempt to bully opponents of Alagem’s initiative.
Englander is not the first to suggest a connection between Winuk’s letters and Wanda’s direct competition. Some were suspicious about the “anonymous” nature of the first client, as The Real Deal reported in our print issue, given the tension between Alagem and Wanda. Former mayor Brucker had voted against Alagem’s original plan in 2008, leading to local speculation about whether the anonymous letter was connected to the developer.
Wanda spokesman Eric Rose said in an emailed statement to TRD that it was “disappointing” that an “anonymous opponent” of the project would “besmirch the good reputation of Mayor Brucker for its own purposes.” He went on to describe One Beverly Hills as the “only major development project in Beverly Hills that is following the City’s environmental review process” — the only other major development in the neighborhood not following the process being the Alagem’s initiative.
While Alagem and those involved with his campaign denied any connection to the Brucker letter, suspicion was re-aroused by a second letter from the same lawyer, this time directly representing union workers at Alagem’s Hilton Hotel. A spokeswoman for Alagem’s ballot measure, however, told the Times her camp had no prior knowledge of the union’s complaint.
While the union’s concern, as cited in the Times, was over the potential loss of unionized hotel jobs, Wanda’s PAC was formed to fight Alagem’s condo tower measure, not its under-construction Waldorf Astoria hotel, which is nearing completion. [LAT] — Hannah Miet