David Wright earned more than $376,000 a year as the top executive of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He had several homes in Southern California and vacationed in Italy.
But that wasn’t enough for Wright: Prosecutors said he took part in a scheme to get a $30-million contract at the DWP approved, so he could join the company, at a $1-million salary, after he retired from the utility.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr. sentenced Wright, 62, to six years in federal prison for his role in the bribery scandal. At a downtown court hearing, Blumenfeld said that Wright was "well off” before he broke the law.
"The motive here was pure greed and the pursuit of excess riches," Blumenfeld said.
Wright, who pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in January, is the first city employee sentenced in the sprawling federal corruption investigation of the DWP and the city attorney's office. A former DWP cybersecurity chief, a former top attorney who worked under City Atty. Mike Feuer and an outside attorney hired by the city await sentencing.
The crimes have shed light on City Hall's lack of financial and ethical oversight at the DWP, an agency that Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to reform when he was elected as mayor in 2013.
Hired in 2016 by Garcetti for the DWP job, Wright was viewed by some at City Hall as a toe-the-line bureaucrat who would carry out the orders of the mayor's office. However, prosecutors said in court documents that Wright "sought to cash in on the public trust for his own personal wealth and advancement."
Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Wright to eight years and a $100,000 fine. Wright's lawyers sought less than two years in prison, according to court documents.
Wright admitted that he persuaded the DWP board in 2017 to award a $30-million no-bid contract to a company without informing the board that he secretly had agreed to accept a $1-million-a-year job and the use of a Mercedes-Benz at that company once he retired from the utility.
Wright also destroyed evidence and knowingly made false statements to FBI agents and federal prosecutors, he admitted in court documents.
“He betrayed the public trust for years, over and over," Assistant U.S. Atty. Melissa Mills said at Monday's hearing.
Wright used his time at Monday's hearing to apologize to DWP's customers and elected officials and expressed remorse for his actions.
"I really messed up the rest of my life at the end of my career,” Wright said. About a dozen friends and family members watched the court proceedings. One of Wright's sons works at the DWP.
Wright said that he didn’t enjoy his high-level job at the DWP and that he spent years putting up emotional walls at work. “Internally, I am an emotional mess,” he told the judge.
In court documents, attorneys for Wright painted the onetime utility executive as struggling with insecurity about his job, health issues and grief over his father's death at the time of his crimes.
Wright's attorneys also said that he cooperated with the government after meeting with officials in June 2019 and wore a wire to covertly record others.
"Based on the government’s directions, Mr. Wright recorded numerous phone calls and meetings with a large number of individuals who are thought to be persons of interest in the government’s investigation," Wright's attorneys wrote in court documents.
The federal investigation into the DWP and the city attorney's office became publicly known in July 2019, when FBI agents raided both departments seeking information about a class-action lawsuit brought by DWP customers over faulty bills and lucrative DWP contracts.
Prosecutors say that Wright developed a close relationship with New York attorney Paul Paradis, who was working for the city attorney's office on litigation stemming from the faulty billing system.
Wright and Paradis met in February 2017 at a hotel restaurant in Riverside and discussed Paradis’ intent to create a new company, Aventador Utility Solutions, for the purpose of seeking a lucrative contract with the DWP, prosecutors said in court documents filed last year.
Wright ensured that the DWP awarded the contract without competitive bidding, prosecutors wrote. In exchange, Paradis agreed to name Wright chief executive of Aventador after Wright’s retirement from the utility, with Wright earning a salary of $1 million a year, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors portrayed Wright as defiant, willing to muscle through the contract. “We will get this all done and f— anyone that tries to get in the way,” Wright wrote to Paradis in a 2017 text.
The pair also collaborated in other ways. After the two traveled to Israel in 2018, Wright and Paradis hatched a plan to bring a cybercompany to L.A., the agreement says. Paradis would put up $5 million in capital and have a controlling interest, and Wright would have an ownership interest, prosecutors said.
Wright told Paradis that the DWP would purchase five years of cybersecurity training at the franchise facility for $3 million a year, prosecutors said.
By March 2019, there was growing public attention on the Aventador contract and questions about city attorneys' actions in the billing litigation. At a meeting that month, Wright told Paradis that he “feared that their relationship and their corrupt plans for Aventador would be discovered,” prosecutors said in court documents.
Wright directed Paradis to “destroy their incriminating text messages and emails” from Wright’s cellphone and Apple iCloud, prosecutors said. The pair also met at a downtown Los Angeles cafe where Paradis left a paper bag with a “wiped phone and a burner phone” for Wright, according to prosecutors.
Wright participated in a voluntary interview with federal investigators at his residence in June 2019, one month before the FBI raid of the utility and city attorney's office, according to court documents.
Wright "falsely stated that he did not have any financial or business interest — present or future — in Aventador, any successor or affiliate company, or any other company associated with Paradis," prosecutors wrote.
In arguing for a lighter sentence, Wright's attorneys wrote that although Wright received meals, travel and event tickets from Paradis, "he did not receive any of the proposed proceeds of his job offer from Mr. Paradis, including the offered $1-million salary, the luxury car or the signing bonus that he and Mr. Paradis agreed upon as part of the bribery scheme."
Mills, the prosecutor, argued that although Wright ultimately didn't get the $1-million salary, there was "real money involved, real harm involved." She cited a utility expert who worked with the DWP, who told investigators that the $30-million contract was "not necessary."
Wright previously worked as general manager of Riverside Public Utilities.
In January, leaders in that city asked the Riverside County district attorney’s office to investigate whether utility contracts were "illegally steered" to companies when Wright worked at the utility, the Press-Enterprise reported.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.