Exclusive: Mayor and First Lady of Los Angeles Ignored Years of Warnings About Top Aide, Sources Say

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Exclusive: Mayor and First Lady of Los Angeles Ignored Years of Warnings About Top Aide, Sources Say

In the fall of 2018, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was talking to an adviser about his top aide, Rick Jacobs. Garcetti told the adviser: “I can’t believe Rick worked at City Hall for three years and we didn’t get sued.”

The adviser, who recently relayed this conversation to me, was stunned that Garcetti was willing to admit out loud what had often been discussed behind closed doors within Garcetti’s world: that, according to sources, Jacobs regularly engaged in sexual harassment and assault; displayed abusive behavior toward colleagues and underlings; and had questionable ethics. Also stunning, the adviser said, was that despite Jacobs’ reckless and abusive behavior, Garcetti and his wife, Amy Wakeland, kept him in a position of significant power and influence..

It wasn’t as if the mayor hadn’t been warned: Over the past three days, six high-level sources within Garcetti’s government and political universe have told me that Garcetti and Wakeland were repeatedly warned by allies over the past six years that Jacobs’ involvement and influence in the mayor’s office and political and philanthropic operations could lead to their downfall. 

Garcetti, who is serving his second term as mayor of Los Angeles and considered running for U.S. president in 2020, is seen by some as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Now he is facing a growing scandal after accusations by multiple people that Jacobs engaged in sexual misconduct and Garcetti witnessed the abuse and didn’t take action. 

In July, a lawsuit was filed against the city by LAPD Officer Matthew Garza alleging that Jacobs subjected him to years of sexual harassment and assault and that Garcetti had frequently witnessed it. On Monday, I revealed in this newsletter that Garza wasn’t the only one accusing Jacobs and the mayor of such action. Two sources told me that Jacobs grabbed them without consent and forcibly kissed them at fundraisers while the mayor watched and laughed. And a former Garcetti aide told me that Jacobs once grabbed them and forcibly kissed them on the lips. I also revealed that Jacobs had forcibly kissed me on a number of occasions over a 10-year period. 

Garcetti has denied all claims that he witnessed any sexual harassment or assault. But Jacobs, in two separate statements this week, has not denied the allegations against him.

My piece published Monday forced an issue into the national spotlight that had long been an open secret within Garcetti’s administration and in Los Angeles Democratic circles. This was unfortunate given that it’s been three months since Garza—who served on Garcetti’s security detail—filed his lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. Outside of the LA media, hardly any news outlets paid attention to the story. 

This article—expanding on accusations against Jacobs and providing insight on his relationship with Garcetti and Wakeland—is based on interviews with 27 sources, many of whom agreed to speak to me after my story published Monday. The sources include current and former Garcetti aides and allies; Democratic Party donors, staffers and officials; and LA government staffers. None of the sources was willing to speak on the record, either because they fear reprisal from Garcetti, members of his administration, Wakeland and Jacobs or because their current employers don’t allow them to speak to reporters without prior authorization.

In response to an email requesting comment, Jacobs replied on Friday: “I don’t know how to respond to anonymous and scurrilous accusations. What I can say is that I have always tried to live my personal and professional life to the highest standards and I will continue to do so.”

Garcetti’s office, replying to a detailed list of allegations mentioned in this story, released only a blanket statement: 

"Rather than respond line by line to these false statements, we offer the below. Mayor Garcetti has zero tolerance for sexual harassment. While he unequivocally did not witness any sexual harassment and was not told of any allegations of harassment prior to LAPD Officer Matt Garza’s lawsuit, he takes all allegations seriously. He encourages any victim to report harassment, discrimination or misconduct to the City’s Personnel Department.

There were no complaints to the Personnel Department about Rick Jacobs during his tenure with the City. Jacobs has not worked in the Mayor’s Office for four years and stepped down from his nonprofit and volunteer political activities after the allegations were raised this week.

At all times, the City followed the correct protocols, offering Officer Garza services and support and hiring an outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations. The City Attorney retained the law firm, Ellis & Makus, in September prior to this week’s allegations.

The Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles is a nonprofit organization that raises donations to support City programs. Their work is integrated with the City’s work, and like the Fire Foundation, Library Foundation, Parks Foundation and Zoo Association, they have an office in a City building, at City Hall. We very much appreciate their financial assistance for City residents and programs; however, as an independent nonprofit, they have denied funding requests from City departments and the Mayor’s Office.” 

In the three months after the lawsuit was filed and before my story ran, Garcetti resisted pressure to distance himself from Jacobs, who stopped working for the city a few years ago but had been serving as an outside political and philanthropic adviser to Garcetti. Jacobs was a board member and treasurer of the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles—a nonprofit organization that helps to fund Garcetti’s philanthropic priorities—as well as president and CEO of Accelerator for America, a nonprofit that many see as a vehicle for helping Garcetti gain national influence. Jacobs had also been Garcetti’s representative in dealing with Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. 

During those three months and despite presenting himself as a leader in combatting workplace harassment and sexual violence, Garcetti never made public statements calling for there to be an independent investigation into Garza’s allegations, and he told the Los Angeles Times in August that Jacobs should not have to go on leave while the lawsuit was working its way through the court system. 

But all that changed Tuesday. Twenty-four hours after I published my story—which gained national media attention—Garcetti issued a statement saying: “I take seriously all allegations of harassment. Rick Jacobs has stepped away from his non-profit and volunteer political work.” Jacobs’ name was quickly scrubbed from the Mayor’s Fund and Accelerator for America websites.

Garcetti’s statement allowed for Jacobs to depart with a soft landing. In a statement Jacobs sent to the LA Times, he said: “For the past 17 years, I have dedicated myself to advocacy and public service. I do not want this to be a distraction.Therefore, I will take a leave from my non-profit work and my volunteer political work with the Mayor.”

According to two sources, Garcetti and his allies hoped the mayor’s statement would calm the waters and allow him to focus on the final days of the 2020 presidential campaign—and his political future in national politics and the federal government should Biden win. 

But that wasn’t the case. Garcetti had been set to moderate a virtual conversation for the Biden campaign on Tuesday with former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. But after my story was published, he was removed as moderator by the Biden campaign. 

Two Biden aides told me that the campaign would no longer be using Garcetti as a surrogate for the remainder of the race, an embarrassing blow for the mayor, who has worked to cultivate power within Biden’s world—which Jacobs helped him manage and coordinate. (Those efforts were paying off, as Garcetti was one of four people charged with vetting Biden’s vice presidential pick and had repeatedly been floated as a potential Cabinet member in a Biden administration.)

But Garcetti was back on the campaign trail Thursday, moderating a virtual conversation with Jewish mayors for the Biden camp. A report from the press pool quoted Garcetti introducing Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. 

And Garcetti is still active in other high-level political circles. 

This Monday, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will have Garcetti as a special guest at a virtual conversation fundraiser for his campaign committee Booker Victory Fund, according to an invite shared with me by a source. After repeated attempts to get a comment on Garcetti’s invitation to the event, Booker’s office—which had been responding to me—went silent. 

But it doesn’t look as if the story will fade any time soon. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that two more men had accused Jacobs of misconduct. One told the Times that Jacobs sexually assaulted him at an event at Jacobs’ home in 2012. Another, a Democratic strategist, said Jacobs attempted to forcibly kiss him even though the man told the Times he was using both hands to push Jacobs away. 

Also Wednesday, Time’s Up—the organization founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement—called for an independent investigation into the allegations against Jacobs. 

That day I was also the first to report that, in September, according to a document I reviewed, the Los Angeles city attorney had retained the Sacramento law firm Ellis & Makus to conduct an investigation into the allegations. Founding partner Leslie Ellis—who bills herself as having “extensive experience conducting impartial investigations for private and public organizations throughout California”—contacted me Thursday to see if I would be interviewed as part of the investigation. I agreed to share the personal and direct experiences I had with Jacobs. 

Harassment, Bullying and Ethical Red Flags 

But Jacobs’ behavior, sources say, goes beyond the sexual harassment and assault allegations. He also has questionable ethics and has displayed abusive behavior toward colleagues, they said.

Jacobs, sources say, has reserved most of his animus for women—and often for women who disagree with him or challenge him. Ten women who worked for Garcetti either in government, philanthropic endeavors, or politics told me this week that Jacobs frequently bullied them, threatened them, harassed them and sent them inappropriate text messages and emails. 

Jacobs “treats women horribly,” one source told me. “And he would often brag about how he enjoyed making women cry.” 

Two women also told me they witnessed Jacobs grab other women without consent. 

Four sources told me this week that they made it clear to Garcetti that they could not work for him as long as Jacobs remained in his universe. All four sources said they told Garcetti that Jacobs engaged in inappropriate behavior and was abusive toward staff. But after those four sources spoke to Garcetti candidly, Jacobs only became more powerful and influential in his circle, the sources said. 

Garcetti “didn’t ignore Rick’s behavior because he was loyal to Rick; he ignored Rick’s behavior because he enjoyed that he had someone to bully people and he didn’t have to do it,” a former top adviser to Garcetti told me. 

A source who worked for Garcetti in a political capacity framed the mayor’s approach to management like this: “I’m going to be the person who smiles and is the nicest person you’ve ever met while I surround myself with people like Rick and Amy to harass the fuck out of you,” the source said.

Regarding Jacobs’ ethics, another source described a situation where a major Los Angeles-based firm was seeking a meeting with Garcetti. Just 20 minutes after the meeting was scheduled, Jacobs called the firm to ask about donating to the Mayor’s Fund, the source said. The request made the person on the receiving end uncomfortable and smacked of quid pro quo, they told me. The meeting with Garcetti went forward, though the company did not make the donation. 

The Mayor’s Fund has been a source of great concern among some Garcetti aides and allies. The fund donates money to worthwhile causes, but sources who spoke to me said they were worried about how the fund was run under Jacobs’ leadership. Garcetti allies have tried to portray the fund as completely independent of Garcetti and Wakeland, but the fund’s offices are housed in Los Angeles City Hall, and sources say that the current board chairman, Kathleen Brown, serves as a rubber stamp for the interests of Jacobs, Garcetti and Wakeland and has ignored her fiduciary duties as a board member. Brown, who is an attorney, is a former California state treasurer and the younger sister of former California Gov. Jerry Brown. 

In response to a request for comment, Brown did not respond to any of the specific allegations laid out in this story about her leadership, including a question on why Jacobs was allowed to remain on the board of the Mayor’s Fund for three months after the lawsuit was filed. 

In an email, she wrote, in part, “I proudly chair the board of the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles (MFLA). Alongside six other independent, volunteer directors, we allocate private resources to support civic programs, enhance government services, and spark innovation to address our city and our region’s most pressing needs. … I consult regularly with all board members, as we work together to accomplish MFLA’s goals.” 

‘What Does He Have on Eric and Amy?’

Garcetti is known for presenting a kind veneer to almost everyone he deals with, and his allies outside his inner circle were stunned to read the accusations that he had long been aware of Jacobs’ misconduct.

And political observers as well as those close to Garcetti have been trying to determine why he and Wakeland have been willing to keep Jacobs around given that he is such a liability. How was the risk possibly worth it? Many of the sources I spoke to repeatedly asked questions like, “What does he have on Eric and Amy?” insinuating that Jacobs was so close to Garcetti and Wakeland that it would be a liability to them if they pushed him away. 

There is much that is unexplained, but, according to sources, it’s clear that Jacobs, who earned Wakeland’s trust—and by extension Garcetti’s trust—when he ran an independent expenditure campaign against Garcetti’s mayoral opponent Wendy Greuel in 2013, filled two key roles for Garcetti and Wakeland: He raised money and he acted as a heavy, dealing with all of the difficult and messy tasks that no elected official or first lady wants to handle. 

Garcetti and Wakeland knew Jacobs was enough of a problem that they pushed him out of his LA City Hall role of deputy chief of staff of operations in 2016, sources said. The move was framed as a leave of absence (which became permanent in 2017), but, sources said, everyone knew that Jacobs would never return because staffers made it clear after three years of abuse that his presence there as a top paid city official was untenable. 

But moving Jacobs out of City Hall only served to make him more powerful, sources said. He could now influence city policy without the scrutiny of a city role; he could make money as a consultant using his proximity to Garcetti; he could control two nonprofit organizations with millions of funding between them; he could oversee Garcetti’s quixotic presidential candidacy exploration; and he could control ballot measures that Garcetti was pushing, earning himself more money and power. 

In accepting Jacobs as their heavy—the man who was willing to handle all of the stuff they didn’t want to handle—Garcetti and Wakeland were tacitly endorsing his behavior, my sources said, and have exposed the city of Los Angeles and themselves to legal, political and criminal liability. 

As pressure built for Garcetti to distance himself from Jacobs, several of the mayor’s allies told me that Jacobs didn’t have any formal power in Garcetti’s universe, so it was difficult for him to make a clean break. But Jacobs was the treasurer of a charity set up in the mayor’s name—one that had office space within City Hall—and he was also the co-founder and president/CEO of another nonprofit that was formed to give the mayor a higher profile. Jacobs was also the point person for the National Conference of Democratic Mayors. 

Often, the most potent form of political and governmental power isn’t a fancy title, it’s all about access: the frequency of that access and timing of that access. Someone who speaks to a politician when they’re out of the office—late at night, in person or by phone, while no one else is around—can oftentimes be more influential than someone in a senior leadership position in that elected official’s office. Jacobs has been that person for Garcetti, and it remains to be seen if the mayor will continue to maintain his relationship with him in private. 

I asked Garcetti’s office if he was still talking to Jacobs and seeking his counsel. 

They declined to respond. 

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