Where’s Walter O’Malley when you need him?
The revered owner of the Dodgers—who moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and privately financed and built Dodger Stadium in the early-1960s —was a man of stature unknown today in Chavez Ravine. Former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley once called the patrician O’Malley “the epitome of class.”
But who would say that about Dr. William (“Bill”) Burke, a connected local businessman and political figure, with his offer leading an investment group to acquire the Dodgers for $1.2 billion?
The chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the L.A.-region’s smog-control agency, and member of the California Coastal Commission, is simply carrying the money for Chinese interests seeking to buy the Dodgers from the bankrupt and disreputable McCourt family. And by Chinese interests, we’re talking the government of the People’s Republic, if initial news reports are accurate.
Burke is no O’Malley, that’s for sure. Here’s some background on him, with much more in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.
Where O’Malley built a top-notch baseball empire with private funds, Burke has made a career acting essentially as a high-class bagman carrying money from other people to politicians, with more than a little self-aggrandizement along the way.
Burke is well-known for his political action committees, which have delivered millions of dollars to legislators and city council members throughout his career and given him access and clout in L.A. City Hall and Sacramento.
Not surprisingly, he constructed his for-profit L.A. Marathon on public subsidies and then cut corners when it came to paying legitimate fees levied by the city. The L.A. council looked the other way in Burke’s case, particularly those to whom he doled out campaign contributions. Compare that situation to a more recent one, when the council pulled the plug on the popular Sunset Junction Music Festival because the promoters failed to pay fees. The cancellation, just days before the festival was scheduled, left musicians and vendors hung out to dry, a fate never visited upon Burke.
Beyond the hypocritical spectacle of the region’s top clean-air advocate representing as a private businessman a country where air pollution kills an estimated 655,000 people annually, according to this 2008 study, there’s also ground-level dirt in the district chair’s past.
In 1994, the L.A. City Ethics Commission, along with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, fined Burke’s corporation $436,250 for laundering campaign contributions. But at least that was out in the open. As we document in Smogtown, Burke quietly arranged a $53,000 AQMD public relations contract for Layne Bordenave, the mistress of former-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, records and interviews show. Bordenave simply took the money and ran without providing any service. Burke bragged that in exchange for the money, Brown promised to block legislation trimming the district’s authority during a rough economic patch in the 1990s.
Burke was back to bidding again in 2001, helping to kill the first California electric car mandate as General Motors wanted. Burke argued it was unfair to require electric cars when working-class stiffs of color still had to breathe diesel fumes from trucks on freeways and at the ports. He said he’d brokered a deal with G.M. to deliver a half-billion dollars to end diesel pollution in Southern California, if only the state would release G.M. from its obligation to build electric cars. G.M. got rid of the obligation, but never delivered the money, leaving L.A. and the state with pollution from both cars and diesel soot from trucks. Today, the electric car is making a huge comeback.
Not too shrewd, Bill. But that’s what happens to those in public service who are willing to carry money for special interests to get ahead. Repping the Chinese, with their reputation for environmental lethality, and G.M., whose recalicitrance to install exhaust-trapping technology helped entomb Southern California in dangerous fumebanks of smog for decades, fits a pattern.
Let this cautionary tale about Burke’s attempt to buy the Dodgers with the investment group sink in. Once it does, it’s easy to imagine Walter O’Malley spinning in his grave at the notion that the team he loved could pass to such hands.