The dreamers, swindlers, billionaires, foreigners and felons knew all the warts, but they still saw the dollar signs in an old industrial neighborhood with toxic waste embedded in its soil.
Sure, this was a city well known for dysfunction. But these were hundreds of mostly wide-open acres next to two of the busiest freeways in Los Angeles. It was, they all thought, a perfect site for professional football.
And now the NFL seems to think so, too. The Chargers and Raiders want to build a $1.7 billion stadium on a former landfill at the heart of the city of Carson’s blighted industrial neighborhood – a decision that could also spell the end of professional football in Oakland and San Diego.
If a stadium does rise from the trash dump in Carson, not everyone who believed in the site is likely to reap its rewards. A Beverly Hills developer saw promise when most others had given up. He spent six years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to bring an NFL stadium to Carson only to have his rights to the deal expire just as it was actually happening. A San Diego orthodontist believed in the site, too, though it appears his involvement was just one in a string of failed sports schemes, like his brief ownership of the San Diego Swingers professional tennis team in the 1970s.
Those are just two of the many characters involved in the long history of efforts to bring professional football to Carson. That history, pieced together through interviews with key players and documents from an ongoing lawsuit, involves 15 years of false starts, delays and inaction until the Chargers and Raiders publicly revealed their stadium plans in February.
As the Chargers tell it, the team only turned to Carson a year ago, pushed there by St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s aggressive pursuit of an alternative stadium site in Inglewood. They didn’t want to let someone else take territory they believed was theirs.
“In the spring of 2014, and thereafter, the Chargers made clear publicly and repeatedly that the team could not, and would not, sit idly by while a team from outside California moved into the greater L.A. market,” team spokesman Mark Fabiani said.
So last summer, the Chargers approached the landfill’s owners and began to make a deal.
The latest attempt to bring the NFL to Carson began with corruption.
Thirteen years ago, Beverly Hills developer Richard Rand said Carson’s then-Mayor Daryl Sweeney demanded a significant bribe to gain entitlements for a Wal-Mart he planned to build in the city. Rand refused. The city voted down the project. Soon after, Sweeney went to prison on unrelated bribery charges. Rand sued.
As part of his settlement, Rand got Carson to give him exclusive rights to pursue an NFL stadium on 91 acres near the 110 and 405 freeways. The deal was structured so Rand wouldn’t get paid unless he helped bring the project to fruition.
This was not a crazy idea. Back in 1999, L.A. mega-dealmaker Michael Ovitz included the nearby Carson landfill site in his stadium plans when the NFL was looking to add an expansion team. The league chose Houston over Los Angeles, but always kept its eye on Carson. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue once even toured the Carson site in a helicopter.
“We have known about the city of Carson for many years,” said Eric Grubman, an NFL executive vice president who is leading the league’s L.A. stadium push.
The NFL’s interest in the area and Rand’s deal with Carson got him some meetings.
Grubman himself met with Rand. And since Rand’s contract began in 2008, Rand said he met with Patrick Soon-Shiong, Los Angeles’ richest man, and executives at numerous investment banks, including Guggenheim Partners and Goldman Sachs, about backing a stadium project. Rand also said that former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan spoke to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and L.A. billionaire Eli Broad on his behalf. (Neither Soon-Shiong nor the investment bankers on Rand’s list could be reached for comment. A representative for Riordan said he was out of town and unavailable for comment.)
At the beginning, Rand knew his effort was a long-shot. So did Carson. When Carson first gave him exclusive negotiating rights in 2008, Rand wasn’t even sure a stadium should go on the property. Four years later, when city leaders re-upped his contract, they acknowledged that Rand had little chance of success. Other proposed stadium sites in the city of Industry and downtown Los Angeles seemed more plausible.
Still, Rand continued to sink substantial time and money into the project. He hired architects to draft plans for a stadium. He produced a fancy PowerPoint detailing all the reasons Carson was the best site for football in Los Angeles, centering on its great freeway access. When Carson leaders took a trade mission to China in spring 2014, Rand tagged along on his own dime to try and pitch Chinese investors on football.
There was some interest in Asia. Kourosh Hangafarin, a Carson businessman who was on the trip, recalled a wealthy investor from the industrial city of Guangzhou telling everyone he was planning to write a $500 million check for the stadium. The investor sent a fleet of limousines to wine and dine them.
“There was like one limousine and then another and then another,” Hangafarin said.
Afterward, the Guangzhou investor asked Carson officials for a follow-up meeting in the United States about the NFL deal.
But nothing came of it. Rand alleges something sinister was going on at the time of the trade mission. The city, Rand believes, was undermining his stadium contract with the help of a San Diego orthodontist with a history of long-shot sports schemes.
It’s been 12 years since a Carson politician was sent to prison. But questionable deals and political dysfunction remain a regular feature of government in the city of 93,000, less than 20 miles south of downtown L.A.
Some of Carson’s latest controversies:
• Last fall, Carson Council members tried to push through a $300,000 annual contract for Hangafarin to solicit business in China that, according to then-City Manager Nelson Hernandez, didn’t require Hangafarin to actually succeed in attracting Chinese investment. (Hangafarin has a history in San Diego, too. He resigned after less than two months as a Unified Port of San Diego commissioner in 2005 after making an unauthorized trip to Cuba and signing a trade deal on the port’s behalf.)
• In February, Carson fired Hernandez, the city’s third manager in less than two years.
• In May, the daughter of a well-known L.A.-area politician accused Mayor Albert Robles of sexually assaulting her during a 2013 conference in Washington D.C. Robles has denied the allegations.
• Last month, City Clerk Jim Dear, who was Carson’s mayor for almost a dozen years until March, attempted to stop the Council from swearing in a new member in what the local newspaper called an “incoherent rant.”
Rand believes Carson’s dealings with San Diego orthodontist Leonard Bloom also belong on that list.
Starting in summer 2013, while Rand was still under contract with Carson, Rand alleges in a lawsuit that Bloom began secretly working with Dear, then the mayor, on the NFL project.
As proof, Rand offers a series of emails between Bloom’s assistant and the assistant to Carson’s elected officials arranging meetings and phone calls about a stadium project. The correspondence also indicates Bloom ghostwrote a letter for Dear in January 2014 to the owners of the landfill site requesting an urgent meeting. In March 2014, Bloom tried to arrange his own meeting with Soon-Shiong and appears to have successfully scored a sit-down with television personality Larry King at King’s Beverly Hills home for him and Dear. (King couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Bloom’s company created a website, which is still active, advertising an NFL stadium, arena, convention center and hotel on another nearby parcel of land.
It’s been a long time since Bloom was involved in such a high-stakes sports project. Back in the 1970s, though, he was a San Diego sports mogul with a net worth advertised at close to a billion in today’s dollars.
In 1972, Bloom was awarded the San Diego Conquistadors franchise in the now-defunct American Basketball Association. A year later, he signed basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain to be player-coach. Chamberlain never suited up for the team and, after a brief spell, left coaching, too. Bloom owned the Conquistadors for three years and the team folded soon after his tenure. Around the same time, Bloom founded the San Diego Swingers pro tennis franchise. He got rid of it before the team ever played a game in the city.
Bloom’s luck wasn’t any better with arenas. He failed to build a 20,000-seat sports area in Chula Vista for his basketball team after public referendums twice shot down the project. Bloom also struck out trying to turn an ice rink he owned in La Mesa into a Las Vegas-style adult cabaret.
Newspaper investigations and dozens of lawsuits from the 1970s and 1980s painted Bloom as a double-dealer who left a slew of aggrieved business partners.
“Count your fingers after you shake hands,” one man who tangled with Bloom told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
But since his high-profile sports forays more than three decades ago, Bloom has taken on such a low profile that he’s essentially been forgotten.
Exactly what Bloom was doing for Carson is unclear. He declined to be interviewed.
But in late 2013, Rand said he became aware of Bloom’s work and began complaining about it.
By last summer, Rand was worried that his exclusive contract, which was due to expire that September, wasn’t going to be renewed. He sent a memo in late August pleading his case to city leaders.
While the other stadium projects in Industry and downtown L.A. had fallen by the wayside, Rand argued, Carson was gaining steam. Rand reminded the mayor and Council that his initial agreement came as a result of malfeasance by city officials. And Bloom’s work, he said, had undermined his efforts.
“My credibility to our city these past 15 years is well documented,” Rand wrote. “Leonard Bloom does not have the same history or integrity for the city of Carson.”
But the city decided not to renew Rand’s contract. Rand said Dear told him he was no longer needed.
Indeed, as all this was going down there was a real stadium deal in the works in Carson.
Years before, a Carson economic development official said the city had learned a lesson about dealing with the NFL, one that was about to be proven true.
“The city figured out a long time ago that you don’t call the NFL, the NFL calls you,” the official said.
The Chargers trace their involvement with Carson back to the Rams.
It was Kroenke, the Rams’ zillionaire owner, who forced the team’s hand in January 2014 when he purchased land for a stadium in nearby Inglewood. The Chargers started scouting for a stadium of their own.
That summer, the Chargers say they contacted Starwood Capital, the company that controlled the Carson landfill. This 168-acre site, contaminated through years of garbage and oil excavation waste, has a long and tortured history of cleanup attempts.
By late September, Fabiani, the team spokesman, said the Chargers were encouraged by what they found.
“At that point, the Chargers, through the team’s outside legal counsel, approached city of Carson officials about a possible transaction that would allow a stadium to be built on the site,” Fabiani said.
If the Chargers’ connection with Carson did first occur in late September 2014, then Rand’s contract would have expired just beforehand.
Rand said that he met with the Chargers as early as 2013. The talks, Rand said, progressed to the point that he drew up site plans for the team’s corporate headquarters and practice fields after Chargers representatives told him both were needed for a move to Carson. Fabiani acknowledged discussions with Rand prior to the team contacting Starwood last summer but called them limited.
As for Bloom, Fabiani said he tried to contact the team about his efforts to build a stadium in Carson, but the Chargers turned him down.
The Chargers’ discussions in Carson heated up in January, Fabiani said, once the Rams began collecting signatures for an initiative pegged to the Inglewood site.
The first public disclosure of the Carson stadium plans came in late February. A rowdy press conference was held soon after, punctuated by Robles, the current mayor, wearing a Frankenstein mashup jersey featuring both the Chargers and Raiders logos.
The five months of planning between the city and Chargers before the announcement had been a closely guarded secret. No written communications between the team and Carson elected officials exist, city officials have said. Even high-level Carson staffers were surprised by the stadium news.
“People were calling me with questions asking me what was going on,” said Barry Waite, the city’s business development manager and a Carson employee for almost three decades. “I told them to watch TV and then they could tell me what happened.”
Even now, with the Chargers breaking off talks in San Diego and little progress on a new Raiders stadium in Oakland, the Carson landfill might just remain a Carson landfill. The Rams’ proposal in Inglewood remains formidable. The league has long used the threat of Los Angeles to compel cities to invest public money to keep their teams. This could be another attempt at using L.A. as leverage.
Robles told an interviewer back in May that he was aware that his city might just be a pawn in that game.
“There is a shred of possibility to what you’re saying is true, we’ll leave it at that,” he said.
Scott Lewis and Ry Rivard contributed to this story.