PLANNING WATCH - We are surrounded by crime, such as the petty street crimes that the media relish, as well as other types of crime that rarely get prosecuted or generate media coverage.
This week two events focused my attention on both types.
- I streamed all three Godfather movies, and was surprised by Godfather III, in which Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) discovered that when he shifted his crime syndicate’s business to legal ventures, he became enmeshed in white collar crimes much larger than the Mafia’s gambling and drug operations. They took the form of enormous financial rip-offs, but with one difference. No one ended up in prison.
- In my neighborhood, a woman in her early 70s was pistol-whipped, tied up, and gave her assailant access to her home safe. He then grabbed hundreds of thousands of dollars in valuable jewelry, mostly Rolex watches. Since the thief ignored clothing, handbags, artwork, cameras, and computers, some neighbors, like me, believe this robbery was an inside job.
Frequent violations of planning laws: The planning field is filled with repeated white collar crimes that fly under the police and media radars, unlike such street crimes as the Rolex watch heist.
As I have previously reported, the State of California and LA’s Charter legally require Los Angeles to prepare, adopt, and monitor a comprehensive General Plan. Yet, the City of Los Angeles ignores these laws with impunity, such as the 2016 requirement that California cities add an Environmental Justice Element to their General Plan. Meanwhile, LA’s General Plan is out-of-date, and plan monitoring ceased in 1999. When the City occasionally updates a local Community Plan, it is done out-of-sequence, prepared and adopted before, not after, new citywide General Plan elements.
To be clear, these crimes have sketchy work-arounds, usually referred to as “pay-to-play,” bribery packaged as legal gifts and contributions to office holder accounts and election campaigns. It is the latter which landed former City officials like Ray Chan and City Council members, Mitch Englander, Jose Huisar, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, in jail or awaiting trial for Federal fraud charges.
In addition to these high profile crimes, there are many other violations that the media ignores.
- The lowest level is bootlegged construction projects, done without building permits and zoning approvals, usually to save money, but sometimes to allow illegal features, such as McMansions with rooftop rooms and front setbacks converted into parking spaces.
- The next level is pay-to-play to get waivers from zoning laws, usually for major projects.
- The highest level of pay-to-play is lobbying and campaign contributions to shape the ordinances regulating land use and construction. An obvious example is LA’s new Housing Element. When implemented, it would up-zone tens of thousands private parcels, creating immediate windfall profits for owners and developers who flip their properties.
If we move from planning, zoning, and building codes to other categories, we can observe the same shenanigans, sometimes perpetrated by sophisticated con-artists who know they will never see the inside of a jail cell or be subjected to media scrutiny. Because street crimes get the bulk of media coverage, they are the main component of copaganda. Its focus on street crimes is joined at the hip with calls to hire more cops and lock more people up.
Copaganda builds on what most people consider to be criminal activity – in the moral sense – versus categories that governments prosecute as crimes. It varies significantly from country to country and from one time period to another. For example in US ally Saudi Arabia, the authoritarian government recently sentenced a woman to 34 years in prison for posting tweets critical of the country’s monarchy. Another example of political crimes is Nicaragua, where the government detained the country's Catholic Bishop for "organizing violent groups to carry out acts of hate against the population.” A third example would be the United States, which called on the UK to extradite an Australian journalist, Julian Assange, for violations of the WWI era Espionage Act of 1917. His punishment would be 170 years in a US maximum security prison for posting secret government files in Wikileaks that documented atrocities committed by the CIA, US soldiers, and government contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another take on crime would be other highly unethical behavior that governments do not prosecute. French philosopher Voltaire summed it up with this keen observation, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” If Voltaire had lived in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he would have been mortified, but not surprised, that the death toll from US wars waged after WWII is between 20-30 million people. If we add-in related violations, such as torture at Back Sites, like Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the total would be even higher.
This crime-without-punishment principle is widespread in our own society:
- Labor code violations, such as not paying overtime, paying employees less than the minimum wage, misclassifying a workers status, making illegal deductions, pressuring injured workers to not file for worker’s compensation, firing workers who lead unionization efforts, reporting employees to immigration services, denying sick leave and vacation time, understaffing, stealing tips and failing to correct unsafe working conditions, especially those responsible for 5,000 fatal workplace injuries per year in the U.S.
- One of the most grievance labor code violation is wage theft. It is rampant in the United States and totals between $40-60 billion per year.
- Few white collar crimes in the United States are investigated and prosecuted. Only 3 percent of Federal crime prosecutions are for white collar crimes even though the total dollar amount of these crimes is $1 trillion per year versus street crimes, which total $15 billion per year. When it bleeds, it leads in the US media, even though the cost of street crime is 1/67th that of white collar crime. Furthermore, when collar criminals are prosecuted, their punishment usually takes the form of fines paid by employers.
- Crimes committed by law enforcement in the U.S. are also widespread, but only prosecuted when there are massive nationwide demonstrations, such as those in summer of 2020 for George Floyd. Otherwise, police crimes, such as 1000 murders per year, are justified through repeated claims that police officers acted in self-defense, especially when their victims are Black. While extremely persistent victims of police abuse can occasionally get a cash settlement, it is rare. It also does not lead to the prosecution of police officers for their offenses.
The Godfather movies were fiction, but their revelation that white collar crimes are massive and seldom prosecuted remains an important real-world take-away.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the boards of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and the Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send comments and corrections to [email protected].)