FILE - Los Angeles City council member Curren Price Jr., speaks at the Paradise Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Aug. 19, 2014, during a community forum. Prosecutors charged Price, with embezzlement and perjury on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. The criminal case is the latest one to upend the scandal-plagued governing board of the nation’s second-largest largest city. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)BY MICHAEL R. BLOOD AND STEFANIE DAZIO
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS) — These are dark days in Los Angeles, but perhaps nowhere is that more true than at scandal-ridden City Hall.
The weather phenomenon known as June Gloom has for weeks sealed the city known for crystalline sunshine under a murky blanket of clouds. That could be an apt metaphor for a metropolis struggling with a panoply of crises, most recently a shocking string of corruption cases in city government.
On Tuesday, prosecutors charged Councilmember Curren Price Jr., who has served on the 15-member council for a decade, with embezzlement and perjury. He’s the third city council member to be charged with a felony in recent years. Two former members — Jose Huizar and Mark Ridley Thomas — pleaded guilty to felonies this year.
It follows a racism scandal last year that led to the resignation of then-council president Nury Martinez after a leaked tape exposed three Latino councilmembers plotting to expand their power at the expense of Black voters, revelations that shook the public’s trust in the council.
All have left the council hobbled — in numbers and reputation — to address persistent problems in the sprawling city of nearly 4 million, like an unyielding homeless crisis, post-pandemic office vacancies and poorly maintained roads.
“It’s a dark moment, for sure,” said historian William Deverell, of the City Hall corruption scandals. “Our governance structure in downtown Los Angeles seems beset with these crimes.”
Deverell, the founding director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, noted that L.A. history has many examples of violence and unrest — whether in the 1850s as a new American city or during its explosive growth in the 20th century, with the expansion of Hollywood and the oil industry.
In recent years, there was talk of a downtown “renaissance” and predictions that the city was headed toward a reshaped future with more public transit and high-rise living options. That may come in time, but for now L.A. is left with the challenge of a council in turmoil at a time of multiple, interconnected challenges with homelessness, housing, fiscal policy and other issues.
“How can we solve these things systematically?” Deverell asked.
Price’s charges are the latest in a string of scandals that have shaken public trust in City Hall.
He has been charged with five counts of embezzlement of government funds, three counts of perjury and two counts of conflict of interest — alleging in part that between 2019 and 2021, Price’s wife received payments totaling more than $150,000 from developers before Price voted to approve their projects.
Price was first elected to the council in 2013. His district includes South Los Angeles and parts of downtown. His term is set to expire in 2026.
“There’s no getting around the fact that this City Council has been rocked by a number of scandals over the course of recent years. That is undeniably true and it is palpably felt by me, by the members of the council and certainly by the members of the public,” council President Paul Krekorian told reporters Wednesday.
“Every time there is a new scandal, I recognize that ... there are going to be people who lose confidence, not just in this institution, but in government as a whole,” he said.
In March, former Democratic City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas — a one-time legislator, county supervisor and a fixture in local politics for decades — was found guilty in federal court of seven felonies, including conspiracy, bribery and fraud.
A few months earlier, Councilman Jose Huizar, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges — and in 2020 former council member Mitch Englander pleaded guilty to charges after an FBI investigation.
Amid the racism scandal in October, both Martinez and a powerful labor leader, Ron Herrera, resigned.
On Wednesday, Krekorian filed a motion to suspend Price, saying he was shocked by the criminal complaint against his “friend and colleague,” while stressing that the presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of the U.S. Constitution.
In a letter to Krekorian, Price said he was stepping down from committee assignments and leadership responsibilities “while I navigate through the judicial system to defend my name.”
Price’s attorney, David Willingham, declined to comment Tuesday, saying he had not seen a copy of the criminal complaint.
Krekorian pledged to undertake an orderly process that will include input from Price’s district on how to proceed. He said the suspension motion will initially be referred to the council’s rules committee.
“This will not be a process that will be rushed through as has happened in the past, because it is important that the council have an opportunity to discuss and debate all of the issues surrounding this,” Krekorian said.
The scandal will pressure Democratic Mayor Karen Bass, a Democrat, to intervene, according to political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired University of Southern California professor.
“People see her as the leader of the city,” Jeffe said of Bass. “Politically, this is not good that this is happening, even though (Bass) has nothing to do with it.”
Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed to this report.