San Fernando Valley group calls for Councilman John Lee’s removal from planning committee
When the Los Angeles City Council last month voted to suspend yet another member of its ranks, Mark Ridley-Thomas, in the wake of federal corruption charges, some residents in west San Fernando Valley questioned why the panel had not done the same with another member wrapped up in an earlier corruption scandal.
And earlier this week, a San Fernando Valley advocacy group joined the chorus, demanding city leaders discipline Councilman John Lee for his connection to a scandal that sent his former boss to prison for obstructing a wide-ranging, development-related corruption investigation.
The West Valley People’s Alliance called on Council President Nury Martinez and others to remove Lee, who represents the 12th District in which the advocacy group is active, from the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, a body that makes decisions on major development projects citywide.
Lee did not respond to a request for comment this week.
But the alliance, which formed during the pandemic to address institutional racism, the housing crisis, homelessness and other issues, wrote in a Wednesday, Nov. 10, letter emailed to Martinez and others that Lee’s continued presence on the planning committee “is a slap in the face to every Angeleno, especially Council District 12 residents.”
It is “a stark reminder of (former Councilman Mitch) Englander’s betrayal of trust and Councilmember Lee’s participation in that betrayal,” the alliance added. “Therefore, we demand the immediate removal of Councilmember Lee from the PLUM (Planning and Land Use Management) Committee.”
Lee has not been charged with any crime. But speculation has persisted as recently as last month, when the federal indictment accused Ridley-Thomas of engaging in bribery while he was a county supervisor.
The multiple groups that have called for Lee’s resignation or suspension have done so, on the assumption that the councilman is the unnamed city staffer mentioned in 2020 FBI indictment filings against Englander that accused him of accepting expensive gifts from a businessman during a June 2017 trip to Las Vegas.
Lee has acknowledged that he was on the trip, but said he was not aware of any illegal activity.
Since that acknowledgement, Lee has repeatedly declined to comment on whether he is the “City Hall Staffer B” named in the filings.
He has also not commented on a mention of a person named “John” in a subsequent filing made in Englander’s sentencing proceedings.
West Valley People’s Alliance, however, said Lee should face consequences.
“While Mitch Englander was convicted and sent to prison,” the group said in its letter, “Councilmember Lee, who was involved in every facet of that tawdry trip, remains on the council, sits on the very same (Planning and Land Use Management) Committee central to Mr. Englander’s indictment, and has faced zero consequences from the council as a body.”
Zach Volet, a West Hills resident and member of the alliance who helped to write the letter said that this issue has been “hanging over our heads since (Lee) was elected.”
“We just feel that at this time,” he said, “are we just supposed to just sit around and wait for the other shoe to drop, for the FBI to finally indict this guy?”
The council, for its part, has not seemed shy about disciplining its members. More than a year before suspending Ridley-Thomas in October, for example, the council did the same to Jose Huizar after he was arrested and charged with racketeering.
The alliance, meanwhile, also sent a similar letter about Lee to the planning committee’s chair, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, making the same demand for the 12th District councilman to be removed from the committee. Volet said the group hoped to appeal to the chair, because he recently aired his own reservations about Lee.
On a KCRW radio program following Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, Harris-Dawson, who had opposed the move, pointed to a colleague “who was involved in activities that another council member got indicted for.”
“That indictment says that person was there and participated,” he said, alluding to Lee.
Comparing the allegations against Ridley-Thomas to the Englander scandal, Harris-Dawson said, was “appalling and insulting.”
Neither Harris-Dawson nor Martinez has responded to requests for comment on the Valley group’s letter.
We must continue to act against corruption within the LA City Council.
— West Valley People’s Alliance (@WVPple) November 10, 2021
In that letter, the West Valley People’s Alliance argued that Lee, similar to Ridley-Thomas, could also be suspended for events that occurred prior to being elected to office.
“Mr. Ridley-Thomas’ alleged crimes occurred before he was seated on the Council, just as Mr. Lee’s did,” the letter said. “If Councilmember Ridley-Thomas can be suspended for actions taken prior to his election, we see no reason that the same standard can’t apply to Councilmember Lee who was employed by the Council as Mr. Englander’s Chief of Staff at the time of the Vegas trip.”
Lee has faced past efforts to highlight and address his involvement in the activities mentioned in the probe, including the Granada Hills South Neighborhood Council passing a resolution in June 2020 that called on Los Angeles to conduct an ethics investigation into his trip to Las Vegas. A City Ethics Commission spokeswoman said via email that the commission does not confirm or deny whether an investigation exists.
He responded to that effort saying that he had “never had a single ethics violation” during his 20 years working for the city.
His statement did not respond directly to the contents of the neighborhood council’s resolution, which tied him to the allegations described in FBI filings.
Lee had also been asked by a Los Angeles Daily News reporter during a news conference a month earlier, in May 2020, on an unrelated matter, whether he was the City Staffer B named in FBI filings, but he did not answer the question directly at the time.
After the Englander indictment became public, Lee issued a statement that he cooperated with the FBI and had done “everything in my power to pay for and reimburse expenses related to this trip.”
Englander is serving out a 14-month sentence, and last month was transferred from federal prison to a Long Beach facility, ahead of scheduled release on May 28.