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Investigation Launched into Campaign Loans Involving Inglewood Mayor, Council Member

Inglewood James Butts at The Forum
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The state's political watchdog is looking into alleged nepotism and financial conflicts of interest between the mayor of the City of Inglewood and a sitting council member, the latest in a spate of controversies involving the embattled politician who has made himself the face of the most expensive stadium ever built in the United States.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission said it is investigating claims Mayor James Butts exercised undue influence over city business by approving a $100 million dollar contract for a company only after it hired his brother, according to documents obtained by Socal Connected.

The nonpartisan agency overseeing California's Political Reform Act was prompted by a formal complaint from resident and longtime Butts critic David Turner. In the July 30 letter, Turner outlines how Michael Butts was hired as an operations supervisor earning $72,000 a year by waste management company Consolidated Disposal Services in 2012, while a city trash-hauling contract was out for bid. With his brother's votes, the city ended up giving the contract to Consolidated even though the company was underbid by some $10 million, The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year. Butts has repeatedly denied the accusation.

Subsequent to Consolidated's contract, Butts voted in favor of multiple rate increases for residential and commercial refuse services, which were ultimately approved.

This allegation is not new: the matter was brought to the attention of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, which in 2013 concluded the familial quid pro quo was not illegal, as Butts did not financially benefit from the deal. However, as Turner's complaint points out, the Daily Breeze reported in April that Michael Butts' bankruptcy records show he was renting a home owned by his brother for $1,600 a month, monies the mayor apparently failed to disclose to the FPPC.

In addition to the perceived conflicts related to his brother and the trash-hauling contract, the mayor is accused of failing to disclose the status of repayments from loans to the election campaigns of Inglewood Councilman George Dotson from 2013 to 2016. Turner noted in his complaint that campaign filings show Butts' contributions to Dotson's campaigns total more than $150,000. 

Screenshot of Inglewood mayor James Butts loans
A section from one of Mayor Butts' 460 campaign disclosure forms.

"It is hard to conceive of a local elected official making such large loans without receiving any form of repayment for such a long period of time," Turner writes. "These outstanding loans raise the question of whether Mr. Dotson's obligation to Mr. Butts has colored his official actions in voting with Mayor Butts on most of the major issues facing the City over the course of the last five years." 

While the FPPC would not comment on this specific case, a spokesman for the agency told Socal Connected there are no rules on the repayment of a loan to a local candidate, "except that it has to be reported on each statement until it's repaid or forgiven." 

The FPPC sent a letter to Dotson on August 14 notifying him the agency was looking into his campaign disclosure statements based on allegations made in Turner's complaint.

Neither Butts or Dotson replied to Socal Connected's request for comment.

These are just the latest controversies for a mayor who was hurled -- jumped, some say -- into the international spotlight as massive construction progresses on the forthcoming Rams stadium and entertainment complex on the grounds of the old Hollywood Park Casino, a project that now might end up costing NFL Investors a whopping $4.9 billion, according to Forbes.

Since the stadium was announced, Butts was both praised for the promised economic boom expected to come to the area and vilified by residents fearing gentrification and displacement, which are one in the same to many. However, Butts is now facing two separate lawsuits over a new development deal for a proposed venue for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Madison Square Garden, owner of the historic Inglewood Forum, sued the city and called out Butts, specifically, claiming he lied to them to get them to give up a long-term lease and buying option for a parcel of city-owned land used for overflow parking. According to the suit, Butts said the land would be used for a "technology park," but the property across the street from the Forum is now slated to become the site of the new Steve Ballmer-backed Clippers Arena.

Butts called the lawsuit a "sham" earlier this month, but it's not the only accusation of double-dealing in relation to this project.

On the community side, the City of Inglewood is also facing a lawsuit brought by residents who say Butts and the city eschewed California's Brown Act, the law which gives citizens the right to attend local government meetings in order that officials provide full transparency. 

In March Socal Connected reported on emails that showed Inglewood officials negotiated an agreement in secret to allow the Clippers arena to be built. 

The suit brought by Inglewood Residents Against Taking And Eviction claims backers of the arena project might have used a "special meeting" to get the project approved; this type of meeting only requires a 24-hour notice to the public, while a regular meeting requires 72 hours. IRATE claims the city did not follow the requisite California Environmental Quality Act before approving the project, and that both the Clippers and the city kept the organization's name out of their correspondence to obfuscate the true goals of the meeting.

This fight begat yet another scandal involving Butts, in which he was accused of telling a community activist to choke herself while he was being recorded at a council meeting.

The Daily Breeze reported earlier this month that following a June 12 council meeting, Butts told a critic of his, 'Go choke yourself, Diane,' while seated at the dais. Activist Diane Sambrano had criticized Butts for giving the Clippers access to city land to hold a press conference earlier in the day, the paper reported.

Joseph Teixeira, another vocal detractor of Butts, recorded the remark off the city's website on his cellphone. He said when he went to watch the video weeks later, it had been edited to cut out the insult. The video currently ends seconds before Butts makes his comment.

Though it is clearly audible, Butts denied ever making the comment. "As I said before, I have no recollection of saying this. This is not how I have ever spoken to the public," Butts told The Breeze. "I have never asked anyone to edit a video or delete a video, so I have no explanation for Mr. [Teixeira's] tape," Butts added.

Both Sambrano and Teixeira publicly denounced Butts at subsequent council meetings. 

At the June 12 press conference Sambrano originally referenced, Butts joined Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, coach Doc Rivers and Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove, among others, on stage in support of Assembly Bill 987, legislation which, if passed, would expedite and partially bypass the state's CEQA regulations for construction of the arena. The bill was introduced by the Inglewood-area assemblywoman. 

A similar measure, Senate Bill 987, failed in that chamber last year. State Sen. Steven Bradford, who introduced the bill and was also present at the press conference, told the L.A. Times the bill had failed because the City of Inglewood is "led by black and brown elected officials."

"Today is not about a basketball arena," Bradford told the paper. "It's about reinvesting and revitalizing a community, a community that has been ignored for over 20-something years." 

Top Image: Pepe Aguilar Donates Dozens Of Musical Instruments To Children Of Promise Preparatory Academy With Inglewood Mayor James Butts | JC Olivera / WireImage via Getty Images

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