A Los Angeles politician cast a critical ‘yes’ vote months after the chief executive of Sony Pictures arranged a $25,000 corporate contribution to a super PAC
Emails stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures Entertainment have been fodder for a steady stream of gossipy Hollywood scoops. But the trove also contains a hidden and more consequential story about how corporations can try to influence local politics and advance their executives' pet projects.
Messages reviewed by ProPublica and The Los Angeles Times show that the top executive at the entertainment company, who also sits on the board of trustees of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, last year directed a $25,000 Sony contribution to a state super PAC. The politician who founded the PAC later cast a crucial vote backing millions of dollars in public funding for the museum's expansion.
The donation, records and interviews show, was promised well before a local election, but wasn't publicly disclosed until afterwards.
The art museum had been lobbying local officials last year for $125 million toward a flashy new $600 million campus
, the curved contours of which would hover over one of the city's main thoroughfares. A key vote would come from Mark Ridley-Thomas, a county supervisor who represents Compton, Watts and many of LA's toughest neighborhoods.
The museum's director, Michael Govan, believed Ridley-Thomas' vote would be critical because the building would stretch into his district – which meant other supervisors were likely to defer to him. In an interview, Govan acknowledged the project was going to be a hard sell and he was "nervous" about the outcome.
Then, in July, Govan learned that one of the museum's trustees, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, was about to have lunch with the supervisor. So he sent a pair of emails to Lynton listing the virtues of the project, saying that the timing of the meeting was "perfect and critical" and adding, "this won't happen if the Supervisor doesn't support it."
At the lunch, Ridley-Thomas requested the contribution from Sony, according to his chief deputy. In September, the money landed in the coffers of the political action committee he founded to promote candidates and causes such as African-American voter registration. And two months after that, Ridley-Thomas voted for the museum project.
All parties involved insist there was no connection between the contribution – far and away Sony's largest in California that year – and the supervisor's vote. Such a link could be a violation of campaign finance law.
The internal Sony communications, posted online by WikiLeaks, the website devoted to publishing corporate and government secrets, show how determined the museum had been to court Ridley-Thomas, and how careful Sony was to delay public disclosure of their contribution until after a local election.
Months before Lynton and Ridley-Thomas met, two of their aides went to lunch at Café Vida, a casual spot near Sony's offices in Culver City: Keith Weaver, Sony's executive vice president in charge of government affairs and Alex Johnson, at the time an aide to Ridley-Thomas.
According to the internal emails, the two met to discuss Johnson's bid for a seat on the L.A. school board. Ridley-Thomas had endorsed his aide, and the PAC he founded
– the African American Voter Registration, Education, and Participation Project – was spending heavily to get him elected.
Weaver threw Sony's support behind Johnson, scheduling an event to introduce him to other potential supporters. A review of California campaign finance filings shows no Sony contributions in the last decade to a school board candidate. In internal records, Weaver noted the candidate's affiliation with Ridley-Thomas.
A few weeks after the Culver City lunch, Lynton, the CEO, had on his schedule a meeting to discuss Ridley-Thomas with Weaver and Govan, the museum director, the emails show.
Less than two months later, Lynton and Ridley-Thomas went to lunch. Lynton's team entered the meeting prepped with the note from Govan reminding the Sony CEO why the supervisor's support was critical. The county, Govan said, wanted to see a financial plan for the museum's new building by fall. Since term limits were about to force some turnover on the board of supervisors, it was in the museum's interest to move quickly. The museum needed the county to commit so it could leverage the public funding into millions of dollars more in private support.
Weaver sent an email before Lynton's lunch, telling the CEO that the Ridley-Thomas-linked PAC was spending heavily to get his former aide elected.