Donald Sterling: 4 years after settling housing discrimination suit, has he improved?
If the NBA has its way, Donald Sterling's days as owner of the LA Clippers are numbered.
But he remains one of Los Angeles' most high-profile landlords, and the April release of a recording of Sterling making racist comments has also renewed interest in his record as a landlord once accused of racial discrimination.
So what's his record since 2009, when he settled a federal class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against black and Latino tenants in favor of Korean-Americans?
A search of public records shows Sterling's rental empire appears to have operated largely free of official allegations of discrimination in the ensuing years. But there's a caveat: federal officials are keeping some records secret.
The Sterling Family Trust owns more than 140 buildings, with more than 8,000 rental units in Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu and Long Beach.
Here are some answers to questions about Sterling's behavior as a landlord, based on KPCC's interviews and examination of public records:
Remind me, what was he accused of?
Tenants of some of Sterling's buildings in Koreatown first sued him in 2003, alleging he was trying to force out African-American and Latino tenants in favor of Korean-Americans. The case alleged that Sterling told building managers that he did not like Latino or black tenants, and that he preferred to rent to Korean-Americans. He changed the names of several buildings to include the word "Korean" or "Asian."
Also, tenants living in the building at the time were illegally told to fill out forms disclosing their places of birth and nationality to get their new garage openers. In some cases, tenants' rent checks were refused, and they were then accused of not paying rent. Sterling settled that case for an undisclosed amount of money.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice brought its own lawsuit, which repeated many of the allegations that the company was trying to displace blacks and Latinos in favor of Korean-American tenants, and that Sterling managers refused to rent to non-Koreans or lied about the availability of rental units to non-Koreans. The complaint said that Sterling's company also discriminated against families with children.
So what happened to that case?
Sterling paid $2.7 million in 2009 to settle the U.S. Department of Justice case and agreed not to discriminate against tenants. It is the largest payment ever obtained in the settlement of a federal Fair Housing Act case alleging race discrimination in the rental of apartments, said DOJ spokeswoman Ellen Canale. Sterling did not admit fault.
As part of the consent order settling the suit, Sterling, his wife Rochelle Sterling and the companies — Sterling Family Trust, Korean Housing Co. LLC and Beverly Hills Properties — agreed to have an independent agency monitor the companies compliance with the Fair Housing Act.
They also agreed to pay for an annual three-hour training for building managers on the provisions of the act.
Have there been any new discrimination cases since then?
To find out, KPCC reviewed hundreds of pages of complaints to housing agencies, lawsuits and other public records from a dozen local state and federal agencies. KPCC reporters also interviewed housing advocates, federal officials and attorneys at low-cost and free legal clinics in Los Angeles County.
Housing advocates told KPCC they have not received any race-based discrimination complaints since 2009.
KPCC found one civil rights lawsuit filed by tenants who were not involved in the earlier cases. The case alleged that a manager of the Wilshire Ardmore Towers, a Sterling-owned property, discriminated against a Bangladeshi immigrant and his Japanese-American wife. The lawsuit was filed in 2012, but was dismissed based on inaction on the part of the plaintiff. A company statement said it was never served with the lawsuit, and it made no payment to the plaintiff.
Other complaints have been filed for maintenance problems and underpayment of property managers, and one group of Sterling tenants sought legal help after their section 8 vouchers were no longer accepted and eviction proceedings were launched.
In a written statement, a Beverly Hills Properties' representative said the company receives a small number of maintenance complaints when the number of units it owns are taken into account. The statement called the property managers' unfair labor lawsuit frivolous, saying the managers agreed in their contracts to work only part-time hours. The company also said it wanted out of the federal Section 8 housing subsidy program because it was inefficient, and that it had won trial court and appeals court decisions permitting the company to convert government-subsidized units to standard rentals.
Are the Sterlings good landlords?
It's hard to know for certain.
Between 2009 and 2012, testers of different races were hired by a housing agency to pose as prospective tenants at Sterling buildings. Their assignment was to find out whether managers were discriminating against applicants. The testing was required as part of the 2009 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
"We'd test for race, national origin, familial status," said Denise Cato, head of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, which the Sterling organization hired to do the testing. "For race, we would send someone that was black and [someone who was] white out, to see if they were being treated equally."
She said her company tested about 100 of Sterling's buildings per year at random. She declined to say what the testing cost, saying it was a confidential amount. She said she billed the Department of Justice, but the Sterling organization said it bore the cost of the testing and training.
The results? Cato said she didn't look at the results, but sent them to the Department of Justice for review.
The Department of Justice denied KPCC's Freedom of Information Act request for copies of those documents on the grounds that releasing them would reveal its investigative methods and invade the privacy of the people involved in the testing.
In a statement, Department of Justice spokeswoman Dena Iverson said, "Some of the tests raised concerns about the conduct of some of the Sterling's employees and the department brought those concerns to the attention of the defendants."
Ultimately, the department allowed the decree to expire in November of 2012 after determining that the Sterlings had substantially complied with its terms, she said.
Sterling attorney Doug Walton said that of more than 8,000 units, only 37 residents were "aggrieved" in the lawsuits against the company.
"A settlement of a lawsuit is not an admission of guilt and is often negotiated to end costly litigation," he said in a written statement. "Beverly Hills Properties is committed to providing equal housing opportunity for all."
Walton and an outside public relations firm representing Rochelle Sterling declined several requests for them or their clients to be interviewed about the Sterling organization's fair housing track record since 2009.
Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the Housing Rights Center of Los Angeles, worked on the 2003 case and said that experience told her all she needs to know about Sterling.
"Just as they keep saying Donald Sterling shouldn't be allowed to own an NBA team, the Housing Rights Center feels just as strong that he not be allowed to own rental property as well," she said.
But Denise Cato, who conducted the annual anti-discrimination testing from 2009 through 2012, said the atmosphere has greatly improved, in her opinion. The Sterling organization pays Cato's nonprofit to continue training building managers. Each series of lessons, with managers attending in small groups, costs Sterling $10,000, she said.
"I'm pretty sure that if you went to 90 percent of his property, they might have issues, but I don't think any of them are going to be race, national origin or familial status, because the individuals that he's put in place," she said. "All his property managers are trained, and all his staff is trained."
Do you live in a Sterling property? Have you had any issues with his companies? Let us know through KPCC's Public Insight Network. You can also post in the comments below, on KPCC's Facebook page or on Twitter (@KPCC).