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People v. Wong

July 28, 2010

THE PEOPLE, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
LELAND WONG, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Michael Johnson, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BA320190).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ashmann-gerst, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

The story of Leland Wong (Wong) is one of graft and hubris. Wrongly believing he could get away with lying, cheating and stealing, he ended up convicted of multiple crimes, including embezzling money (Pen. Code, § 487, subd. (a)),*fn1 accepting a bribe (§ 68); acting with a conflict of interest (Gov. Code, § 1090); and committing perjury (§ 118). He appeals and assigns error on the theory that the embezzlement convictions are barred by the statute of limitations, and the bribery, conflict of interest and perjury convictions are not supported by sufficient evidence. Among other questions presented by this appeal is the following: Is it legal for a commissioner in one city department to take money from a third party to influence contract negotiations with a different department in the same city? The answer is no. After review, we conclude that the challenged convictions must stand.

FACTS*fn2

Embezzlement from Kaiser Foundation Health Plan

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan (Kaiser) operated as a nonprofit entity. For 17 years, Wong worked for Kaiser as the Southern California Director of Community and Government Relations. He had an annual budget of about $9 million, and his job was to promote Kaiser's profile in the community, which he did by taking community leaders to business meals and providing them with tickets to sporting events and concerts. Under Kaiser's code of conduct, Wong was prohibited from reselling Kaiser property and keeping the proceeds for himself. And per Kaiser's national policy, massages were listed as a prohibited business expense. From 1997 to 2002, Wong reported to Kathleen Ann Blackburn (Blackburn), the Vice President of Public Affairs for Kaiser's California Division. Beginning in 2000, Wong also reported to Richard Cordova (Cordova), the President of Kaiser's Southern California region.

Debra Hernandez (Hernandez) worked under Wong as manager of community relations, and Pat Schreuder (Schreuder) worked under Hernandez as an administrative assistant. Wong directed Hernandez and Schreuder to purchase tickets for him on their corporate credit cards. Afterwards, he resold the tickets to a friend named Wanda Denson-Low and others, took the proceeds and deposited them into his bank account at Bank of America.*fn3 Wong's fund disbursement authority was no more than $50,000. When he purchased expensive tickets that exceeded his fund disbursement authority, he split the invoice by dividing the cost into multiple expenses so that he would not have to obtain approval from a supervisor. Also, Wong paid for massages at the Bonaventure Club for himself and Troy Edwards (Edwards), a deputy mayor of the City of Los Angeles (City), and one of the massages received by Edwards included a sexual act. Wong was reimbursed by Kaiser for the massages.

In violation of Kaiser policy but at the request of Cordova, Kaiser's chief compliance officer Daniel Garcia, and possibly Blackburn, Wong organized fundraisers for California Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, labor leader Miguel Contreras, and City Attorney Rockard J. Delgadillo.

Lori Dutcher (Dutcher) was the vice-president of compliance and was responsible for implementing programs to ensure that Kaiser and its employees were abiding by state and federal law. In October 2003, she received an anonymous tip that Wong had engaged in misconduct with respect to invoices paid to an organization called People Works. Dutcher*fn4 requested financial documents from Kaiser's controller and immediately began interviewing Kaiser employees. Although she was unable to substantiate any misconduct regarding the People Works invoices, she learned of other potential misconduct attributable to Wong. She expanded her investigation and asked Kaiser's finance department to run a report on all payments that had been made out of cost centers under Wong's control. When reviewing the documents, Dutcher noticed a number of suspicious expenses and determined three things: Wong violated Kaiser policy by having subordinates instead of Cordova sign many of his expense reports; he incurred expenses for a large number of events and meals that appeared to go beyond what was covered in Kaiser's travel and entertainment policies; and, finally, he used Kaiser assets for political events, which jeopardized Kaiser's nonprofit status.

Dutcher prepared a report to inform Kaiser management of her preliminary findings regarding inappropriate expenses, political events and the People Works invoices. Wong was placed on administrative leave and the documents in his office were secured. When Dutcher reviewed those documents, she discovered ticket purchases for Lakers games as well as for concerts by artists such as Paul McCartney and Madonna. The tickets were purchased from Staples Center, ticket agents and a lawyer named Ted Stein (Stein).*fn5 In contravention of Kaiser policy, there was no accounting system for the tickets, and Wong's staff could not tell Dutcher where the tickets went.

In January 2004, Wong was fired. The continuing investigation by Kaiser and the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office led to the discovery that Wong sold Lakers tickets and kept the proceeds.

Bribery, conflict of interest and perjury related to the Evergreen Group

From 2001 to 2003, the City had three proprietary departments: the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the Department of Water and Power (DWP), and the Harbor Department (Harbor). Each department was self-supporting and overseen by a commission. LAWA was in charge of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Ontario International Airport (Ontario Airport), Palmdale Regional Airport and Van Nuys General Aviation Airport. The City's mayor, James Hahn (Mayor Hahn), had managerial authority over the City's proprietary departments and could appoint and remove members from their commissions at will. Though a commissioner was expected to exercise independent judgment on matters pending in his or her respective department, each commissioner was also expected to cooperate with the City's other departments, implement Mayor Hahn's policies, and take action on any issue that Mayor Hahn asked a department to address.

Due to congestion at LAX, Mayor Hahn wanted to move some of the air traffic from LAX to Ontario Airport. Mayor Hahn communicated his desire to LAWA through a variety of people that included Edwards, the liaison between the Mayor's office, the LAWA Commission and LAWA staff. Mayor Hahn was willing to offer carriers economic incentives to move away from LAX. In 2002, he appointed Wong to the LAWA Commission. In his capacity as a commissioner, Wong worked with Edwards on encouraging carriers to move their air traffic.

The Evergreen Group (Evergreen) was a large Chinese conglomerate with many companies. Two of those companies were EVA Air, an airline company with a lease at LAX, and Evergreen Marine Corporation (Evergreen Marine), an ocean shipping operation with a 30-year lease known as Permit 888 at the Port of Los Angeles (Port).*fn6

Evergreen Marine believed its rent was too high and unsuccessfully tried to renegotiate with the Harbor Commission and Mayor Hahn for more advantageous terms.

Robert T. Chiu (Chiu) worked for Marine Terminal Corporation (Marine Terminal),*fn7 a vendor that provided stevedoring services to Evergreen Marine. Chiu knew Wong from the time Wong was the president of the Harbor Commission in the 1990's. Wong said he might be able to help with Permit 888, so Chiu put him in touch with Ren Gung Shyu (Shyu), an executive at Evergreen Marine. Shyu and Wong met in mid-2002 and Wong agreed to work as a consultant for $5,000 a month. Evergreen Marine hoped that Wong would act as a coordinator and "open up some channel[s]" so that the Port Authority and Harbor Commission would treat Evergreen Marine fairly with respect to rent. Shyu began depositing $5,000 a month into Wong's bank account in Hong Kong. Wong never asked the City whether working for Evergreen was a conflict of interest.

Shyu provided Chiu and Wong with a draft of proposals for negotiating with the City, including a proposal that the City provide Evergreen Marine with a $3 million construction credit. In an e-mail to Edwards, Wong outlined Evergreen Marine's proposals and stated: "The following is a summary of items you should raise with the Port of LA on the Evergreen matter. The items listed have been raised by Evergreen and are very reasonable based on my experience and very standard in most contracts executed by the Port. Please note that there is preliminary approval to have EVA Airlines operate cargo and passenger service at Ontario. Please review and let me know what you think our strategy should be on Oct[ober] 30th. I believe the items requested are reasonable. We should also note that moving airline service to Ontario is a major accomplishment for the Mayor and should not be taken lightly. We also must be responsive to Evergreen's issues. Currently, Evergreen is paying more than $10 Million annually for higher land rental and extra operations cost due to inefficient operation at the Port of LA. This puts them at a major competitive disadvantage." In order to increase Evergreen Marine's room for negotiation with the City, Wong's e-mail to Edwards inflated the request for a construction credit by $500,000. Wong forwarded a copy of his e-mail to Edwards to Chiu, who forwarded the e-mail on to Shyu.

In November 2002, a group of City officials that included Mayor Hahn, Edwards, Wong and Larry Keller (Keller), the executive director of the Port, traveled to Asia. Keller and a negotiating team met with executives from Evergreen at its offices in Tapei to discuss Permit 888. Wong repeatedly spoke to Edwards during the trip and pushed him on ways the City could reach an agreement, and Edwards believed he was working with Wong in his official capacity as a LAWA commissioner. The City's team left Tapei without a deal and went to Tokyo.

Wong faxed Edwards a letter, stating: "Troy: We need to make a decision regarding Evergreen. This situation has not been handled well. Evergreen has responded to our request to sign off on a LOI (Letter of Intent) to relocate cargo to Ontario, and we have misled them on our actions. [¶] I received another call from [Shyu] this morning. I am embarrassed for you and for me. Our reputation will be tarnished. You may not be concern[ed] with that, but I am. You need to make a decision today re Evergreen!... [¶] This matter has elevated to Chairman Chang and currently, we all have egg on our faces. Don't leave me out to hang on this one! You have to provide some direction to [Keller]. The City/Port has been disrespectful and [has] not handled this matter well. [¶] We can't string this out any further. It is Friday and you can't expect people to wait for you to make a decision. [¶] Focus on this matter, please[,] and let's get it done. I have worked so hard on this for you [and] the mayor. You asked me to bring a major airline to Ontario and I have put my reputation on [the] line here."

Edwards spoke to Keller and said Evergreen was unhappy. Further, Edwards said that amending Permit 888 was important because it was tied to EVA Air's proposed move to Ontario Airport. He told Keller that there was a plane leaving in an hour and half for Tapei, that he should pack and be on it, and that he should not come back without a deal. Edwards said he did not want Mayor Hahn to be embarrassed. Keller did exactly as he was instructed, which resulted in Evergreen ...


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