Special Interests Spent $70 Million Last Year Lobbying City Hall

Cityside Column: Developers dropped big cash to influence Los Angeles city officials. So did Chick-Fil-A.

On April 18, Karen Bass released her first budget as mayor. The $13 billion spending plan, approved by the City Council last week, earmarked $1.3 billion to address homelessness, a major Bass initiative, and increased funding to the LAPD.

But the budget was not the only major financial report released by the city last week.

The City Ethics Commission the next day published its rundown of lobbying activity in 2022. Although overshadowed by the Bass budget, it is packed with details that shine a light on what happens in City Hall.

And a lot goes on: Lobbyists last year earned more than $70 million from clients trying to influence local government.

Here, Los Angeles runs down some of the highlights from the year in lobbying.

What Is This?

Lobbying is one of the dark arts of local politics. At its simplest level, according to the City Ethics Commission, “Lobbying occurs when someone—regardless of title—is paid to influence a City action on behalf of another person.” In the effort to provide transparency, these outside “fixers” who shepherd projects and legislation through the labyrinth of city government are required to register with the city. They also must file quarterly reports detailing who they represent, what projects they push, which city officials they sought to influence, and how much money they earned. Everything is spelled out in a 25-page Municipal Lobbying Ordinance.

The Ethics Commission dashboard lists 626 registered lobbyists in the city in 2022, working on behalf of 2,548 clients.

Big Money

According to the year-end report, lobbying firms reported nearly $18.5 million in payments from clients in the final three months of the year. That brought 2022 lobbying spending to $70.3 million.

That is huge, particularly when you realize that back in 2013, $43 million went to local lobbyists. From there expenditures soared, and by 2016 the take was $62.3 million.

Interestingly, lobbying seems to be one of the fields that was COVID proof—a record $76.3 million flowed to lobbying firms in 2020. The 2022 receipts actually represent a 4 percent decline from the $73.6 million paid in 2021.

Dominant Players

According to the Ethics Commission, there are currently 124 entities registered to lobby in the city (that includes some law firms) but a few tend to dominate year after year.

In 2022, the Los Angeles branch of the international law firm DLA Piper proved to be the 300-pound gorilla of lobbying, with $5.1 million in payments from clients. DLA Piper was also the top earner in 2021, with another $5.5 million in receipts.

Ranking second last year was Englander Knabe and Allen, which pulled in $4.1 million. In third was Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, which notched about $3.1 million.

In 2022, the top 10 firms together accounted for $28.3 million. That represents more than 40 percent of all lobbying money earned in the city last year.

Topping the List

Historically, some of the biggest-spending clients are those seeking to push major real estate development projects through the approvals process. These are often eight-, nine- or even 10-figure efforts, and developers have learned that spending a few million to navigate the process can pay off with a final vote of approval. At the same time, a series of scandals has resulted in heightened scrutiny of the entire process. The lobbying reports are intended to provide some transparency.

The highest-paying client last year, according to the Ethics Commission report, was the BARDAS Investment Group, the West Hollywood-based firm founded by developer David Simon in 2018 which is, according to its website, “focused on the creative office sector.”

BARDAS spent just over $2 million on lobbyists in 2022, according to the report. In the fourth quarter alone, $323,000 went to push a project on the 6100 block of Melrose Avenue. Another $132,000 in the quarter was for an effort to redevelop a former Sears building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The project would include four sound stages.

Notable Names

Altogether, the 10 highest-spending clients paid $8.4 million to lobbyists in 2022. The list includes some prominent names.

AEG, which developed what is now Crypto.com Arena and L.A. Live, spent $578,000 on lobbyists last year, including efforts to expand the Convention Center. Other top spenders in the real estate field were Holland Partner Group, and Angels Landing Partners; the latter is aiming to build a massive project in downtown.

Also spending big in 2022 was outdoor advertising behemoth Clear Channel. The firm paid $591,000 for lobbying efforts.

Chicken Factor

The second-biggest spender might be a clucking surprise: Georgia-based fast food purveyor Chick-Fil-A dished out almost $1,178,455 to lobby city government in 2022. This was an increase from 2021, when the company dropped $919,000 on Los Angeles lobbyists, ranking fourth for the year.

Disclosure statements show efforts to lobby a bevy of city officials and departments, including the City Council, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works. Permitting and entitlements have been sought, and public documents list efforts including $73,000 for “community outreach” tied to an address on Ventura Boulevard.

According to Ethics Commission disclosures, almost $300,000 has been spent on Chick-Fil-A lobbying efforts in the first quarter of 2023.

Hotel in the Canyon

The name of the fourth highest-spending client last year sounds innocuous: 9712 Oak Pass Road. Yet that happens to be the Benedict Canyon address where developer Gary Safady hopes to build an ultra-luxury Bulgari-branded resort. The project has been contorversial, as it would erect a 58-room hotel and eight mansions on 33 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Oak Pass spent $630,000 on lobbyists in 2022, and last week, after a contentious City Council hearing, the panel cast a vote that allows the project to proceed—for now. Yet the area’s new council rep, Katy Young Yaroslavsky, opposes the development, charging it is out of place for the area. She also raised questions about the project’s lobbying efforts.

Given the ongoing battle, 9712 Oak Pass Road could easily be a top-spending client in 2023.