Nick Hanna knows a thing or two about catching allegedly misbehaving politicians in Los Angeles.
As the former U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, Hanna launched a sprawling investigation into pay-to-play corruption at Los Angeles City Hall, indicting former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar on 34 corruption and fraud charges, and reeling in Huizar’s associates, including another ex-Councilman Mitch Englanger, along the way.
Now 16 months after he announced the findings of the FBI’s so-called Operation Casino Royale, Hanna is seeing “common threads” between his LA City corruption case and the new federal probe against current City Councilmember and former LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
“You have two men with very broad powers. And the allegations are that they steered money and benefits to their relatives,” Hanna tells KCRW.
“In Mr. In Huizar's case, the allegation was that he leveraged his position to get developers to donate money to a relative's political campaign. And of course, in the case of Mr. Ridley-Thomas, the allegation is that he directed government contracts to a university in exchange for the university giving his relatives a full scholarship and paid professorship, as the university acted as a conduit essentially to funnel campaign cash to a nonprofit that the relative ran.”
Despite the detailed indictment, Councilmember Ridley-Thomas is maintaining his innocence. In his letter to his colleagues, he said he has no plans to resign from his City Council post, although he would “immediately step back” from council and committee meetings.
The councilmember’s refusal to bow out is no surprise to Hanna, who says a public claim of innocence is the common playbook for elected officials facing serious charges.
“It's pretty typical, in my experience, for [public officials] not to want to step down. When you step down, it does signal that maybe you think there's some validity to the charges.”
Hanna also says, for elected officials facing corruption charges, holding on to their seats is often their “bargaining chip,” suggesting Ridley-Thomas would not resign until a deal is reached with the federal authorities.
“I suspect behind the scenes, there have been ongoing discussions about how to resolve the case. As part of any kind of resolution, the [federal] government would always demand that the public official step down from the public office.”
In the end, taxpayers and constituents would suffer as Hanna predicts the federal investigation would keep Councilmember Ridley-Thomas busy.
“It's pretty hard to carry on your job when you're under indictment in a case like this. Just from a public messaging perception, it would be good to step down. It's also good for the defendant to spend his time focusing on his defense.”
The former prosecutor believes the local political system gives too much power and influence to a selected few and discourages citizens from challenging them, potentially creating a breeding ground for corruption.
“I think members of the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors are very powerful people. They control the purse strings, and they've got a lot of influence on what happens in their districts. Maybe the people were just afraid to challenge those politicians or fear losing their job. As a city employee or a city agency, it's pretty hard to go up against someone who controls your funding.”
Hanna, who is no longer in public service, says he is troubled that despite the indictment of former City Councilmember Huizar, the City Council has not put additional safeguards in place to prevent further corruption at City Hall.
“Even after all these prosecutions, it seems to me to be business as usual at City Hall. Obviously the city's current ethics laws didn't prevent what happened [with Huizar] and certainly didn't detect what happened. And yet, not much has changed.”
Hanna also believes the local government needs serious ethics reforms, including greater transparency and stricter rules of the road.
“When I was U.S. attorney, I had to publicly disclose my finances every year, including what stocks I own, how much money I had in the bank. I couldn't take a cup of coffee from anyone, and that's the way it should be. You're supposed to be serving the public, you're not supposed to be serving yourself.”
Hanna says if Los Angeles doesn’t police itself, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are going to continue to do that job for it.
“People should be on notice that if they engage in public corruption, they'll go to federal prison.”
KCRW has reached out to Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez and Los Angeles County Board Chairwoman Hilda Solis in response to Hanna’s comments.