Looting Hawaiian Gardens
Power Play: Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg Muzzles a Chief Critic of Casino Owner Dr. Irving Moskowitz
by Ron Russell
Originally published 28 September 2000
in New Times LA

On the surface, the four-hour session held in a state office building in downtown Los Angeles to deal with ultraconservative Jewish zealot Dr. Irving Moskowitz's controversial Hawaiian Gardens Casino didn't appear to be out of the ordinary. For the most part, it looked and sounded like the subcommittee hearing of the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee that it was intended to be. But thanks to a highly unusual last-minute turn of events orchestrated by Assembly Speaker Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), the session -- to the delight of the Moskowitz forces -- was no more official than an episode of Oprah.

That's because, on the Friday before the September 18 hearing, the powerful Hertzberg took the unusual step of making sure that the subcommittee was disbanded. He then unceremoniously removed Assemblyman Scott Wildman of Los Angeles, a fellow Democrat and JLAC's former chairman (who is term-limited and will leave office in November), from the committee.

But not only did the defrocked Wildman show up before about 50 people, almost all of them Moskowitz critics, at the Reagan State Building, he was flanked on each side by two prominent L.A. Democrats -- Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco and Senator Richard Alarcon, JLAC's vice chairman.

After the session, Polanco left no doubt where his sentiments lay, describing Hertzberg's action to strip the meeting of its legislative imprimatur "a rookie move," and vowing to press the issue of Moskowitz's alleged violation of state redevelopment law during the next session of the legislature.

"This isn't going to go away," he said. "Some very serious questions have been raised here, and in one venue or another I intend to see that they get a full public airing."

As New Times reported in a cover story two weeks ago, Wildman was the chief architect of a scathing JLAC report released in June that accuses Moskowitz and tiny Hawaiian Gardens' redevelopment agency of conspiring to violate a 1996 law that bars the use of redevelopment funds for gaming purposes. The report (a full airing of which before the watchdog JLAC has yet to occur) concludes that the so-called Gateway redevelopment project, of which the casino is a part, was "rife with questionable practices" and amounted to a "gross abuse of redevelopment" for Moskowitz's benefit.

Among other things, it accuses Moskowitz's longtime associate, Los Angeles attorney Beryl Weiner, of violating conflict-of-interest laws by simultaneously representing the redevelopment agency while continuing to serve as Moskowitz's attorney.

Moskowitz, 72, of Miami Beach, Florida, has run a hugely successful bingo parlor in the impoverished southeast L.A. County community since 1988, using its proceeds to funnel millions of dollars to buy controversial real estate for Jewish settlers on the West Bank. He has become a hero to ultraconservative Jews everywhere, while widely viewed as an obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Through Weiner, critics say, he has for years manipulated Hawaiian Gardens politics while controlling the town as his personal fiefdom.

But the bingo parlor is chump change compared to the potential for the casino, L.A. County's newest and glitziest card club. Opened earlier this year, the 50,000-square-foot facility, which boasts 140 tables with plans for 160 more, is projected to rake in up to $125 million a year. To realize such riches, however, Moskowitz, who operates the casino with a temporary permit, must win a permanent license from the state. Contending that it was built illegally with funds from the redevelopment agency, opponents have asked state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office regulates gaming in the state, to deny the license.

Wildman's report has thus become a hot topic in Sacramento, since it largely validated the claims opponents have long made. Not surprisingly, Moskowitz's supporters, led by Weiner and augmented by a battery of lobbyists and H.G. politicians loyal to the doctor, including Mayor Leonard Chaidez, have made a crusade of discrediting the report -- and Wildman. Moskowitz has also spared no effort to influence key state office holders who figure to play a role in determining whether he gets the license. As New Times reported, the doctor gave at least $7,000 to then state Senator Bill Lockyer's campaign to become attorney general in 1998. And he cosponsored a birthday party for Lockyer last year at the home of L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan.

Now, Hertzberg's elevated interest in the matter has further roiled the political waters.

First, the Speaker intervened in August to place the casino matter on the JLAC agenda on short notice -- over the objections of then-chairman Wildman -- after the Moskowitz team lobbied the Speaker and members of the committee intensely in an effort to quickly repudiate the report. Wildman had argued that the public interest would be better served by holding a hearing in September, after lawmakers, freed from legislative duties, could give the issue full attention. Indeed, the Speaker's effort to force it onto JLAC's August 22 meeting, during the hectic tail end of the legislative session, was a flop. By the time it came up, there wasn't a quorum present.

By then, however, Hertzberg had announced that Wildman would be replaced as JLAC's committee chairman effective September 1, at the same time as would other other committee chairs under Hertzberg's control.

Wildman promptly announced that a hearing on the matter would be held September 18 in Los Angeles, a move he says had the blessing of the incoming chairman, Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Santa Cruz), even though Keeley, vacationing in Italy, wouldn't be present. Wildman, while still chair, then appointed himself to a three-member subcommittee, and on September 7 posted official notice of last week's planned subcommittee meeting.

But sources say that on September 14 an angry Hertzberg called Wildman and threatened to remove him from JLAC entirely unless he canceled the hearing. Wildman refused, saying that the hearing had been duly posted, and that "as a matter of conscience" he would not call it off.

The next afternoon -- the last working day before the hearing -- the Speaker yanked Wildman from the committee, then took extraordinary steps to remove the committee's imprimatur from the Monday session. Unable to reach the vacationing Keeley, whose authority was needed to lawfully cancel the hearing, Hertzberg directed a member of his staff to contact Keeley's chief of staff, Bonnie Hawley, who issued a letter under the signature stamp of her boss to cancel the event.

In an interview, Hawley acknowledged that Keeley had been unaware of the action taken in his name. She said that a Hertzberg staffer, whom she declined to identify, asked her to issue the cancellation notice, contending that Wildman had violated an agreement with Hertzberg and Keeley in August that Wildman would take no further action regarding the Moskowitz affair until a full committee hearing under the direction of Keeley, as the new chairman, could be scheduled.

Hertzberg's press secretary, Paul Hefner, offered a similar account and defended the Speaker's intervention.

"The Speaker's concern is that the process be handled fairly and in accordance with proper procedure," he said, "and frankly he had lost confidence in Mr. Wildman's ability to accomplish that."

Wildman offers a different view. "I didn't violate any agreement of the sort they're referring to because there was no such agreement." He added that Hertzberg expressed no details about how to proceed when the three men briefly discussed the matter in a hallway off the Assembly floor in late August. "His words were, "Hawaiian Gardens is less than a square mile...Well, handle it,'" says Wildman.

Wildman, a candidate for the L.A. City Council seat being vacated by the term-limited Jackie Goldberg, urged those who attended the recent hearing to keep an eye on the Moskowitz licensing effort , adding, "Keep a close watch on the Speaker."

Copyright 2000 New Times, Inc. For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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