Did $600K in suspicious campaign donations make the difference for developer’s Gateway Harbor project?

A Rendering of Sea Breeze and Mayor Eric Garcetti (Credit: City Planning, LA Mayor)
A Rendering of Sea Breeze and Mayor Eric Garcetti (Credit: City Planning, LA Mayor)

UPDATE, 3:15 pm., Oct. 31: A Los Angeles developer who sought approval from the city to build a $72 million residential project in Torrance may have skirted campaign finance laws by funneling $600,000 in campaign contributions to local politicians through his employees, friends and relatives, according to an investigation by the L.A. Times.

More than 100 campaign donors with ties to developer Samuel Leung — including former construction workers, handy men, family members and employees’ family members — donated to the campaigns of U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, Council member Joe Buscaino and Council member Jose Huizar and a handful of other local politicians in the span of eight years, the investigation shows. Leung’s associates also contributed to support Mayor Eric Garcetti by giving to a committee independent from his campaign.

Those donations may have played a role in helping Leung get approval for his 352-unit development, dubbed Sea Breeze, despite opposition from both the Planning Commission and City Council’s planning committee.

When confronted about the contributions, many of the donors told the Times they didn’t recall having signed what were sometimes five-figure checks. Some said they had no idea that campaign donations had been made in their names.

Hahn and Buscaino, Leung’s biggest beneficiaries, represent Gateway Harbor, the industrial neighborhood in which Sea Breeze will be located. Their support was crucial to the fate of his project, which sought a change in zoning from industrial to residential. Overall, Hahn received $203,500, Buscaino received $94,700 and $60,000 was donated to Garcetti’s camp.

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Ultimately, it was Garcetti who saved the project. After both the City Council planning department and the planning commission objected to Sea Breeze, voicing concern about its proximity to industrial businesses, Garcetti granted Leung a reduction in the number of council member votes needed for its approval. Instead of 12 votes, the project required just 10.

In 2014, the development gained final approval. Leung recently broke ground on the building, according to the Times.

When asked about the vote requirement reduction, Garcetti issued a statement claiming that he supported Sea Breeze under his goal of building 100,000 new units of housing in the city by 2021. [LAT]Cathaleen Chen

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not specify that the contributions to Garcetti were donated to a committee independent from his official campaign, not the campaign itself.