Tens of thousands of Sony e-mails, stolen last December by unidentified hackers and made accessible in April by WikiLeaks, have garnered much attention for their scandalous exchanges and meaningful insight into Hollywood’s internal and external dealings.
ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times used the WikiLeaks database of more than 170,000 e-mails to sketch out an illustration of how government sometimes works.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) wanted $125 million from the county to help pay for a $600-million expansion. Board member Michael Lynton was CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment and a frequent associate of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The supervisor asked for and received a $25,000 contribution for a SuperPac he founded and later voted in favor of giving LACMA the money.
The story does not allege a quid pro quo. That would be wrong and illegal.
A tiny piece of the museum lies in Ridley-Thomas’ district, but it’s mostly in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s. The retiring Yaroslavsky has been its champion and will have a plaza named for him there.
Ridley-Thomas has other interests. One of them was getting one of his political aides, Alex Johnson, elected to the L.A. school board. Sony threw some support to Johnson early in 2014, although school board elections aren’t usually where they flex their political muscle.
Last July, according to the e-mails, museum Director Michael Govan suggested to Lynton, who was to have lunch with the supervisor, that it might be a good time to press for the expansion money. The museum was facing deadlines for presenting a financial plan to the county, the board was facing a change in membership and Govan was unsure about political support.
Govan indicated he thought he had Yaroslavsky’s vote, but was uncertain of everyone else. He thought Ridley-Thomas was key.
Ridley-Thomas asked for the $25,000 PAC contribution at lunch, reportedly according to his chief of staff. It seems uncertain whether the museum vote was discussed. Everyone agreed that it would be best if the contribution was actually made after the election, to avoid early disclosure. And that’s what happened. The money was deposited in September, around a month afterward.
Two months later, the supervisor and a unanimous board voted for the expansion money. “I salute you, Michael,” the Times said Supervisor Yaroslavsky told Govan after the vote. “The unanimity of the board is a signal of confidence in you.”
The WikiLeaks e-mails show a general propensity for Sony to generously support Democrats and their favored projects. In this case, Sony has donated $5,000 on multiple occasions to PACs linked to Ridley-Thomas and $25,000 for a special occasion.