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Push for More Developer Oversight on L.A. City Council Moves Forward

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A proposal to establish more oversight of development projects that come before the Los Angeles City Council by creating an office to enforce corruption laws in real estate decisions moved a step forward today.

The council's Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee approved a motion introduced by Councilman David Ryu to establish an Inspector General for Land Use and Development.

The inspector general would oversee the Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency, also called LA ACT, to investigate and subpoena city officials -- elected or not -- with a focus on preventing corruption and increasing transparency on land-use and planning decisions.

The motion comes in response to a wide-ranging scandal in which suspended Councilman Jose Huizar is accused of accepting $1.5 million in bribes from developers in exchange for his support of downtown building projects.

Former Huizar aide George Esparza agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and has been cooperating in the FBI's years-long probe, and real estate broker and development consultant George Chiang agreed to plead guilty to the same racketeering charge, admitting he was involved in a scheme in which a Chinese real estate company bribed a council member in exchange for help on a major development project. Details in that filing also made clear prosecutors were referring to Huizar.

Also, former Councilman Mitch Englander agreed to plead guilty earlier this year to corruption charges for falsifying land-use documents.

“This is the next step in bringing real reform to City Hall ,'' Ryu said. “I came to City Hall to root out corruption, and there is a lot of work left to be done, ... and I urge all my colleagues to support this reform effort.''

Ryu's motion asks city staff to review the costs and feasibility and best practices of creating LA ACT. The motion must first be approved by the full City Council before those reports can commence.

The proposed office could exist on its own or within the Controller's Office or Ethics Department, Ryu said.

The motion mentions oversight offices in other cities, such as the Inspector General's Office in Chicago, which has 100 staff members investigating potential fraud, abuse and corruption, according to Ryu's office.

The number of fraud investigators in the Los Angeles Controller's Office has been reduced in the city budget from four in 2008 to just one today, he said.

Ryu said he argued that was too few investigators in a letter to the council's Budget and Finance Committee.

“We need more oversight, not less,'' Ryu said.

Ryu also recently introduced a motion to change the City Charter to remove the power that council members have to affect City Planning Commission decisions.

The City Council voted in December to prevent developers who have project applications pending at City Hall from making campaign donations to elected officials or candidates for municipal office.

Ryu also said he will be working on further reforms that will be introduced at the end of summer, and he called for action on legislation to publicly finance elections in Los Angeles.

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