Looting Hawaiian Gardens
Maverick Hearing Adds to Dispute on Hawaiian Gardens
by Joe Mathews, Times Staff Writer
Originally published 19 September 2000
in Los Angeles Times

It looked like a hearing of the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee. It sounded like a hearing. It lasted four-plus hours like a hearing.

However, the meeting held at the Reagan State Building downtown Monday was anything but.

Over the objections of legislative leadership, Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles) went ahead with his plans for a subcommittee hearing to air grievances about alleged corruption and gaming in the Los Angeles County city of Hawaiian Gardens - but he did so without authority.

Wildman convened the meeting against the wishes of Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, whose staff asked him to cancel it Friday. When he didn't, Hertzberg responded by throwing Wildman off the committee and disbanding the subcommittee that has been studying Hawaiian Gardens and the activities of retired Miami Beach physician and pro-Israel activist Irving Moskowitz.

"Thank you . . . for allowing me to address your former subcommittee," said the day's first witness, attorney Fredric D. Woocher. With a chuckle, he added: "This is a strange occasion. But I have come over the years to expect the unexpected when it comes to the subject of Irving Moskowitz and the city of Hawaiian Gardens."

Monday's non-hearing represented another bizarre chapter in a years-long struggle that has involved equal parts international politics, state regulation and local gaming. It was prompted by a committee staff report issued in June that criticized the city government, saying it kowtowed to every wish of Moskowitz and his gambling interests.

"Hawaiian Gardens provides an example of what can go wrong when redevelopment is manipulated or used for the benefit of one individual, rather than for the benefit of the community as a whole," the report says.

Moskowitz owns the city's bingo franchise and card club, and is the biggest taxpayer and source of jobs in the city of 15,000 people in southeast Los Angeles County.

"This town is completely controlled by Moskowitz," Julia Sylva, who resigned as city attorney last year, said at Monday's meeting. "Politically and financially, in a way that is not healthy."

Beryl Weiner, a lawyer who represents Moskowitz, adamantly disputes that. He says Moskowitz's critics have fabricated facts about his dealings and exaggerated others, in part because they dislike his activities in the Middle East. Weiner pointed out that Moskowitz's casino plans were approved by Hawaiian Gardens voters in 1995, and have survived a court challenge.

"The critics here are a bunch of sore losers and whiners," said Weiner. "Dr. Moskowitz doesn't dominate Hawaiian Gardens, and neither do I. The fact is that he's the largest employer and the largest taxpayer, and there's nothing wrong with his projects, which are win-wins."

Moskowitz's family lost dozens of members in the Holocaust, and he has long been a supporter of Israel. He first came to Southern California after graduating from medical school in 1952. He eventually built a hospital in Hawaiian Gardens and set up the Moskowitz Foundation, which has run the city's charitable bingo club since 1988.

Much of the profit from his enterprises--along with money he makes from his investments in health care--go to hard-line Israeli charities and to purchases of land and buildings in Arab neighborhoods of Israel. Critics, including the U.S. State Department, have accused Moskowitz of inciting violent Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.

In 1997, at what he says was the request of city office desperate to balance a budget, Moskowitz opened a card club casino. Licensing fees have eased city budget deficits, but the casino also has provided more ammunition for his critics.

In recent months, a coalition of local officials and Jewish leaders opposed to Moskowitz's politics has targeted his license to operate the card club. They have hired a public relations firm and have lobbied state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to deny a permanent renewal of the license at year's end.

On Monday, Weiner and city officials refused to show up at Wildman's non-hearing. Wildman's determination to press on with the meeting angered Hertzberg and the incoming committee chairman, Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Santa Cruz). Keeley and Hertzberg staffers said they would be happy to hold a hearing on the matter, but only after Keeley returns later this month from a vacation in Greece.

"He held this subcommittee hearing in violation of his agreement with the speaker," said Hertzberg's spokesman, Paul Hefner. "Proper notice was not given to other members of the audit committee."

Wildman, who will leave the Legislature at the end of the year, maintained that he had scheduled Monday's session last month. State Sens Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) also attended.

Although Wildman was careful to tell each speaker the meeting wasn't official, committee staff members recorded the session. He suggested that special interests had prevailed on Sacramento speakers to bottle up criticism of Hawaiian Gardens.

"This committee has always acted on its own," he said. "I only hope in the future that this committee will continue its tradition of independence."

Wildman warned each of two dozen speakers that their comments might not be legally protected because the meeting was not official. But the speakers--disgruntled residents, local politicians and attorneys who have sued the city--didn't hold back. They raised a smorgasbord of allegations about Moskowitz and Hawaiian Gardens including election fraud, environmental misbehavior and mistreatment of workers in the bingo club.

"It has been an unusual hearing--or whatever this is," said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, one of the leaders of the coalition, who wrapped up the speeches. "This is the first time I've seen anything like this."

Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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