The Beverly Hills heiress hobnobbing with Ivanka Trump at a Republican soiree last summer should have been at the height of her social powers.
Lisa Korbatov’s parents made a fortune redeveloping Los Angeles’ Garment District and were donors to Republican and pro-Israel causes. Korbatov herself was president of the Beverly Hills school board and a trustee of the Jewish Community Foundation, and her local political activism had received swooning coverage from the local press.
But Korbatov, 54, also has become an object of derision in some palm-shaded pockets of Beverly Hills. For eight years, she has led what passed for a heroic cause in auto-centric Southern California: fighting to derail L.A.’s nascent subway system, specifically a planned nine-mile, $8.2 billion subway extension that would tunnel under Korbatov’s alma mater, Beverly Hills High School.
Korbatov believes the subway poses a dire threat to the school and the surrounding enclave of wealth and celebrity. And so, from her perch on the school board, she has done all she can to stop it.
She’s warned that students could be poisoned or given cancer by seeping fumes, or incinerated by exploding underground gases, because the subway will run through the old oil fields that lie beneath much of West L.A. Kids might be targeted by terrorists attracted by the subway line, she has suggested. Perhaps the school itself will be accidentally demolished by a subterranean construction accident while the tunnel is being built, she has claimed.
“You will not succeed, and we will stop you at every turn,” Korbatov warned subway boosters on the day in 2012 that the route was approved.
But LA Metro, the region’s transit agency, has successfully rolled through the obstacles thrown in the way of its development track. The agency has debunked Korbatov’s theories about poisonous gas and explosions. It repeatedly has beaten the school district in court, obtained approvals and funding and built a staging area near the high school for the coming big dig.
As her cause seemed increasingly hopeless, Korbatov came to be viewed as less of a noble crusader and more of a Chihuahua clamped to a silken pant leg. At her urging, the financially strapped school district has spent an estimated $16 million on lawsuits, without success. But even as Korbatov prepared to leave office at the end of the year, her crusade continued in the form of a lobbying blitz, noisy protest march and more litigation.
GOING TO THE TOP
As she mingled with Republican donors at the private event in West L.A. last June, Korbatov had one more weapon against the subway: an affiliation with Donald Trump that she hoped to parlay into ultimate victory.
If the president can be persuaded to cut off federal funding for the subway project, the Purple Line will be stopped in its tracks. That’s what brought Korbatov to the soiree. She donated $20,000 to a political action committee controlled by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield in hopes of importuning the GOP House leader and his special guest, the president’s daughter, about the subway threat. In case Ivanka Trump or McCarthy had questions, she had the school superintendent in tow.
It was her latest attempt to leverage her personal connection with Trump to benefit her anti-subway campaign.
The wail of needy hangers-on is background noise to any politician’s life, growing louder the higher the political rung. Trump for decades has done business deals that have invited accusations of political back-scratching and conflicts of interest. And since he’s been in office, stories about Trump friends getting what they wanted out of government have become something of a din.
The subway saga points to Trumpian influence-trading gone local.
The emerging Los Angeles mass transit system is the product of decades of ballot measures, public meetings, legal challenges and civic planning initiatives; even in Beverly Hills, voters overwhelmingly approved the system that Korbatov is fighting.
Korbatov, however, is betting all that public process can be trumped — if only she can persuade the president to reach down into the federal transportation bureaucracy and cancel a grant that has long since been awarded to Metro.
TIES TO TRUMP
The Republican woman from Beverly Hills surely seemed out of place on a stage with Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter, an Al Gore presidential campaign adviser and a New York Times reporter.
It was January 2017, three days before Trump’s inauguration, and the University of Southern California was hosting a panel on presidential politics. It turned out that Korbatov had in her pocket the new American political currency: a previous business encounter with Trump.
“I had a personal experience with him, as did my husband, through some business deal,” Korbatov told the audience. “I think he’s very practical, pragmatic.”
The business deal Korbatov referenced was a little-noticed, emblematically bizarre episode in Trump’s real estate career. As detailed in a report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Korbatov’s parents sold a Beverly Hills mansion for $10.3 million in 2008, deeding the property to an Egyptian man, Mokless Girgis, with a history of financial scams. Six weeks later, Girgis transferred the mansion — for no money — to a shell company set up for Trump by his fixer-lawyer, Michael Cohen.
In a filing, Girgis said his name had been put on the deed to the mansion by mistake. Korbatov’s husband, a lawyer who handled the sale, told the same story, saying the wrong deed had been filed by the title company.
Experts who reviewed the deal found the story of the $10 million clerical error implausible. Without access to private financial documents, none of the experts could offer a definitive explanation for what could have happened, but they all agreed the justifications didn’t add up. Some wondered whether Trump somehow got the house for free. The next year, Trump sold the mansion for $9.5 million, while Girgis, pursued by creditors, left the country.
Korbatov has other ties to Trump. The school district’s lead law firm in the subway fight — hired at Korbatov’s urging — is headed by Marc Kasowitz, who represented Trump in cases involving bankruptcy, sexual misconduct and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Korbatov also has a long association with Beverly Hills investment banker Elliott Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser and vice chairman of his inaugural committee.
But those Trump connections were of little help because both men have been felled by scandal. Kasowitz resigned as Trump’s lawyer in 2017 amid reports of a drinking problem, while Broidy became GOP persona non grata following news stories implicating him in multimillion-dollar influence-trading schemes and hush-money payoffs to a Playboy model who had an abortion of a child she said was his.
So Korbatov turned to McCarthy and other pro-Trump lawmakers. In June, at her urging, six GOP members of Congress — including California Trump booster Rep. Devin Nunes — wrote to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to cut off federal funds to the L.A. subway. Korbatov also told confidants that she has spoken by phone to Trump aide Kellyanne Conway about the subway.
At an October gathering of school officials and activists, Korbatov boasted that she had personally lobbied Trump and had also obtained a commitment from McCarthy to talk to the president on her behalf.
“I’ve gone to very high-level donor events as a donor, and I’ve talked to them and I pass on information and documents. I even saw the president, I gave him some letters and he accepted them a few weeks ago,” Korbatov said, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by Beverly Hills Weekly and shared with Reveal. “I have been going to the large donors and getting letters, and the letters have been going to Kevin McCarthy. They pressure him because the only person Trump loves and listens to is Kevin McCarthy. So Kevin is the key. I saw him at least six times in a few months. He has told me that he will do it.”
McCarthy’s press aide didn’t respond to an email query. Korbatov declined to be interviewed for this story. She referred questions to school district lawyer Terry Tao. In a letter, Tao reiterated the district’s concerns about “the danger and disruption” posed by the subway. He didn’t mention Trump.
‘SUBWAY TO THE SEA’
The disputed subway extension plan initially was pushed by a coalition of business and environmental groups, led by then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane, that put a measure on the ballot in 2008 to approve the project.
It seemed a long shot in a city built for the car. At the time, L.A.’s only subway was a little-used, 17-mile line between downtown and North Hollywood. Los Angeles’ historic antipathy to public transit was epitomized in an academic paper (later a book ) titled “Transport of Delight,” which argued that L.A. mass transit supporters must have a psychological obsession with objects being inserted into dark tunnels.
Nonetheless, voters passed a half-cent sales tax increase to build what at the time was dubbed a “subway to the sea.” Metro’s plans included extending its Purple Line subway through Beverly Hills along a route to be determined.
Korbatov was elected to the school board in 2009. She quickly became the board’s dominant personality, with the subway as her signature issue.
At first, Metro plotted a route beneath busy Santa Monica Boulevard to a station among the high rises of Century City. But earthquake experts warned that the Santa Monica fault posed a threat, and the station site was moved. The route change required putting the subway line in a tunnel beneath Beverly Hills High. Amid local protests, officials approved the new route at a stormy meeting in 2012.
To some, it desecrated a 91-year-old landmark, known for its movie-star alumni, dormant oil wells, and the “swim gym” — a basketball court that converts into an indoor pool. To Korbatov and her allies, moving the subway a few blocks was a catastrophe.
On a blue-sky Southern California day, students in shorts and backpacks trudge among manicured hedges toward a cluster of French Normandy-style classroom buildings. Suddenly, an orange fireball obliterates the scene.
“Methane gas, toxic chemicals and teenagers don’t mix,” a narrator intones. “But this dangerous combination is on the verge of exploding at Beverly High, turning the school into a mega-disaster.”
The spliced-in conflagration was the centerpiece of a 2012 video deployed in the anti-subway lobbying campaign warning of explosions, health hazards and cave-ins. YouTube videos created by Beverly High students repeated the litany of dangers.
Even worse might be in store, Korbatov has claimed. In 2010, she told Beverly Hills Patch that “our high school, with its reputation as having affluent and Jewish students, would make a good target” for terrorists attracted by the subway.
Korbatov also accused subway boosters of political corruption, claiming that Villaraigosa had backed the change in the subway route to benefit “a couple of developers who … give large political donations.” Villaraigosa left office in 2013, but Korbatov continued to complain.
“This is Metro — this is what they do to communities,” Korbatov declared during a school board meeting. “They lie. They lie and they use your taxpayer dollars to just run roughshod over your liberties, your sanctity and your sovereignty.”
In 2012, shortly after the route was approved, the school district filed lawsuits claiming the project violated environmental laws. The suits claimed that environmental studies ignored earthquake dangers, underplayed the risk of toxics and explosions, and failed to warn that the subway might make the high school unusable.
For its part, Metro contended that the subway would be perfectly safe and posed no threat to anyone, and it argued that its $13.8 million in environmental studies had been done by the book.
The following year, Korbatov pushed the school board to hire Kasowitz’s law firm to take over the case. She wanted the negotiating skill of the firm’s top lobbyist: Joe Lieberman, the former Connecticut senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee. But Lieberman couldn’t talk Metro into changing the route, and Beverly Hills never got any traction in court. In 2014, a judge tossed the school district’s state lawsuit. An appeal fell flat. Last year, the district’s federal lawsuit also was rejected. The district responded by filing yet another lawsuit.
To pay the lawyers, the cash-strapped school board has been spending the proceeds of voter-approved school construction bonds. The district contends that is legal. But its own auditors note that the state constitution requires that the bonds be “used for specific school facilities projects only.”
Nor is the district forthcoming about legal costs. Franklin Tell, who serves on a citizens’ committee to oversee bond spending, estimates that legal fees have topped $16 million. But the district has refused to let the committee see the lawyers’ invoices, claiming they’re confidential.
“The hubris, arrogance, and ego-driven stupidity to commence yet another lawsuit after its appeal was denied confirms my worst fears that this fiasco has gotten completely out of control,” Tell wrote in a May email to the school board.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Trump’s election seemed to open a new path for derailing the subway: The Kasowitz firm had serious juice with the new president. Lieberman was mentioned as a candidate to succeed fired FBI Director James Comey. Another partner became U.S. ambassador to Israel. Kasowitz himself took on the high-profile job of leading the legal team representing Trump on the special counsel’s Russia probe.
In March 2017, Korbatov wrote to Trump, calling the subway a “financial fiasco” and again mentioning potential explosions. The letter made a point of noting that Kasowitz represented the school district.
But a White House meeting she requested never materialized, and soon Kasowitz was no longer working for Trump. In July 2017, ProPublica reported that Kasowitz “had struggled intermittently with alcohol abuse” and had not sought a security clearance, perhaps fearing he was ineligible. Kasowitz soon resigned as Trump’s lawyer.
Next, Korbatov turned to another Trump connection: Elliott Broidy, an investor friend from L.A. Jewish circles who was a leading fundraiser for the Trump Victory Committee PAC during the 2016 campaign. When Korbatov wrote to Trump about the subway, Broidy also signed the letter.
But Broidy, too, fell from grace after hacked emails implicated him in an influence-trading scandal that involved hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, Malayasia and other countries seeking access to Trump. A $1.6 million hush payment to former Playboy model Shera Bechard, set up by Trump’s fixer Cohen, cemented Broidy’s role as a pariah. He resigned as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. And Korbatov lost another entree to the president.
In the spring, Korbatov began cultivating Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita, a hardline Trump supporter on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. At the time, Rokita was running in a U.S. Senate primary, telling voters, “I’m pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump.” Korbatov donated $3,400 to his campaign.
After he lost, Rokita went back to Congress and circulated a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao warning of the subway’s threat to Beverly Hills High: Students might face “coughing, dizziness, nausea and headaches” or even “cancer, chronic asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” he wrote. Nunes and four other California GOP lawmakers signed Rokita’s letter, which sought a meeting to discuss the $1.2 billion in federal funds granted to LA Metro to extend the Purple Line.
But, like the other approaches, no immediate action resulted.
BOTH SIDES DIG IN
Despite Korbatov’s efforts, the subway project continues — and so does the opposition. LA Metro has set up a staging area next to the high school, with tunneling expected to begin in summer 2019.
The move energized opponents. More than 1,000 people signed an online “Stop the Purple Threat” petition addressed to Trump. In October, Superintendent Michael Bregy helped organize a district-wide student walkout to protest the subway, with a noisy rally at a park near a property Trump still owns. But the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “Seriously, Beverly Hills? Cut your Purple Line hysteria, already.”
Many in Beverly Hills — even those who never liked the idea of tunneling under the school — believe it’s time to stop fighting and negotiate a settlement with Metro that will pay to ease the disruption of the construction project. The district’s losing battle “continues to waste millions of dollars that are earmarked for school improvements,” says former Mayor Stephen Webb. The project “is not going to be dangerous to the kids,” he says. “I wouldn’t have supported it if it were.”
Former school board president Herbert Young says Korbatov insists on “spending more money fighting Metro, when fighting Metro is a lost cause.” The tone of her fiery rhetoric isn’t helpful, he says. “She is impolite and has bad manners,” Young says — a refrain that squared with the whispers of a growing league of detractors.
“Lisa,” says Nancy Krasne, another former mayor, “always thinks she’s the smartest person in the room.”
But Korbatov is determined to continue fighting the subway even though her term on the school board expired at the end of the year, people who know her say. She told acquaintances she gave the president a letter and spoke to him about the subway’s dangers and seems to remain confident the administration will stop the project.
As she recounted in a series of WhatsApp messages to subway opponents, she was buoyed by an encounter with the president, apparently at an event at the Trump hotel in Washington in September.
“I spoke to [Trump] two or three weeks ago,” she wrote on October 5. “I [gave] him [two] important pieces of documents. He knows … He told me he [would] look into it.”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka also seemed very receptive, Korbatov wrote. “Ivanka got two packages from me. One I gave her two months ago and spoke to her. … She knew me, and knew the issue.”
In the meantime, she urged subway opponents to “bombard the White House” with emails and calls, declaring, “They all cave in to pressure in DC.” She also urged opponents not to lose heart.
“You all need to trust me,” she wrote on WhatsApp. “Nobody knows more than me.”
Lance Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Matt Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter: @LanceWCIR and @SFMattSmith. This story was produced by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast at revealnews.org/podcast.