Looting Hawaiian Gardens
Controversy in a Small, Casino Town
by Douglas P. Shuit
Originally published 25 March 1999
in Los Angeles Times

Politics: Hawaiian Gardens' city attorney resigns, charging that the city's benefactor is behind move to oust her.

The physician considered by some to be the city of Hawaiian Gardens' absentee landlord is stirring the pot again.

This time, Irving Moskowitz--who controls legal gambling in Hawaiian Gardens and keeps the city alive by funneling millions of dollars in gifts through a charitable foundation--is said to be the force behind the abrupt resignation of City Atty. Julia Sylva.

And the city attorney is not going quietly.

Moskowitz owns the only casino in the city and is receiving money to expand it from the city redevelopment agency. The problem, Sylva said as she resigned Tuesday night, is the fact that Moskowitz is represented by a lawyer whose law firm also represents the redevelopment agency.

Sylva considers that a clear conflict of interest and said she decided to resign when she realized that members of the City Council and other officials were not listening to her advice.

"It's an outrage," she said in a statement to the council Tuesday night. "They are using public funds to build a casino. . . . They would prefer to take legal advice from [Moskowitz's] attorney."

Moskowitz, a retired physician who lives in Miami, has gained international celebrity by establishing Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem on land he purchased from Arabs. Profits from a bingo parlor he owns in Hawaiian Gardens are believed to have contributed to the money he has spent in the Middle East.

Neither Moskowitz nor his attorney, Beryl Weiner, were available for comment Wednesday. The city's largest landowner, Moskowitz in recent years has been channeling on-again, off-again payments of $200,000 a month--about half the city's estimated annual budget--through his Irving Moskowitz Foundation.

Moskowitz also owns the city's only hospital, has other real estate investments and contributes widely to such things as the city's food bank and youth baseball and football programs. He is so well known in the square-mile city that whenever anyone refers to "the doctor," there is never a doubt about who they are talking about.

But the plug was pulled on the $200,000-a-month payments in December, and it plunged the beleaguered little city deeper into chaos, which led to a shake-up of the City Council and, in Sylva's interpretation, her resignation.

"It's not a surprise," said Councilman Placido Alvarez of Sylva's announcement. Alvarez said that if she hadn't resigned, it was likely that critics on the City Council would have replaced her.

Fireworks had been expected since the March 2 city election, when two new council members said to be friendly to Moskowitz's interests were elected, giving the council a new three-member majority, said Alvarez, a local real estate agent who said he now has only one ally on the council.

In recent months, there had been a number of clashes, in court and out of court, between Sylva and Moskowitz's attorney.

Sylva, a Los Angeles attorney who had worked for Hawaiian Gardens on a contract basis for three years and served on the Hawaiian Gardens City Council four years during the 1970s, blames her troubles on Moskowitz.

"Ultimately, the doctor's agenda was to terminate me and get rid of my legal mind," she said. "I kept asking, 'Why is a casino operating with public funds? This is illegal. Public funds cannot be used for gambling.' " She contended that the proper permits and approvals were not filed in conformance with time requirements of state law, a stance she concedes is disputed by Moskowitz's legal advisors.

Other council members agreed with Alvarez that Sylva's departure was just a matter of time. "I was glad that it was done that way," said Councilwoman Petra A. Prida. "I'm glad she turned her resignation in, instead of letting us do it in public."

Prida noted that a number of suits were pending against the city and that some officials believed Sylva could have settled them.

Several of the suits stem from former businesses, like the city's landmark greengrocer, Plowboys Market, that were forced to close when the redevelopment agency moved in to take possession of land for the casino project.

* * * Times staff writer Nancy Trejos contributed to this story.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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