By Dakota Smith, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Months before he became chief of staff to Mayor Karen Bass, Chris Thompson was a registered lobbyist at City Hall tasked with making sure that preparations for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games ran smoothly.
As senior vice president of governmental relations for LA28, the private group putting on the Games, Thompson had weekly meetings with then-Mayor Eric Garcetti’s team, and discussed federal funding, transportation and security with city staff, according to emails reviewed by The Times.
Now, Thompson says he will stay away from those issues even as he runs Bass’ 200-person office during the crucial first year of her administration. An internal memo sent to mayoral staff by an attorney in Bass’ office cited the appearance of a conflict of interest because of income Thompson received from LA28.
“We have a capable staff,” Thompson said in a brief interview. “We’ve got plenty of people who can handle these issues.”
Those statements don’t reassure watchdogs concerned about the city’s potential liability when it comes to the Games. LA28 is responsible for raising money and paying for the $7-billion event, but city and state taxpayers are on the hook for cost overruns.
Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said the Bass administration needs to ensure that Thompson isn’t the “final decision maker” because of his work for LA28. Court also said Thompson should wall himself off from Games-related issues for the entire time he works for the city.
“City Hall will have the Olympics’ biggest booster in the driver’s seat,” Court said.
More broadly, Thompson’s jump from LA28 to the mayor’s office raises the question of how Bass’ office will approach the Games, an event that can help make or break political careers. So far, she has used the Olympics as a benchmark to talk about homelessness, vowing that the city’s encampments will be gone by 2028.
Bass said Thompson’s background with LA28 “wasn’t at all” a factor in his hiring.
“The factor was the length of time I’ve known him,” she said. The two both worked in Washington, D.C. — Thompson previously served as chief of staff to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and worked for the late Rep. Julian Dixon. He also worked at Southern California Edison.
Since joining City Hall, Thompson has restructured the mayor’s office to align with the administration’s focus on homelessness. Mercedes Marquez, chief of housing and homelessness, reports to Bass, Thompson said, so there’s a “direct line of accountability.”
Those who know Thompson said he is not particularly ideological and is focused on results. “He’s not a true believer,” said one political consultant. “He wants to get things done. He’s a problem solver.”
Asked about those descriptions, Thompson said he is a lifelong Democrat and that integrity is paramount to working in government. “But certainly what good is an ideology if you don’t get things done, right?” he said.
The memo sent in December by mayoral counsel David Michaelson about Thompson’s past role with LA28 said Thompson shouldn’t be given any city documents about the Games.
The memo said that Erin Bromaghim, who worked on Games-related issues under Garcetti, would continue in that role.
Eric Sheehan, a member of NOlympics, a group that opposes L.A. hosting the Games, called it a “bit silly” to think that Thompson could avoid working on Games-related issues for the next year because of all the ways — big and small — that the city is planning for the Olympics.
City departments, for instance, could seek money for some Olympics-related issues in the annual city budget that Bass will unveil in April. The Los Angeles Police Department has already submitted a request for $1 million for staffing needs related to planning for the Games and other large-scale events in the 2023-24 budget.
On a larger scale, the city and county are seeking to fast-track transportation projects by 2028.
NOlympics has previously criticized the ties between LA28 and the mayor’s office. One of LA28’s board members, Jeffrey Katzenberg, helped raise millions to support Bass’ campaign for mayor and is credited with helping her beat rival Rick Caruso. Katzenberg has also been a strong voice in the city’s approach to homelessness and policing.
Asked about the relationship between LA28 and the city, Thompson pointed to the various officials tasked with vetting agreements between the two entities, including the chief legislative analyst and city administrative officer.
He also said the protection of taxpayers is a core tenet of the agreements signed between LA28 and the city.
LA28 officials declined an interview request about Thompson but pointed to a statement released by LA28 Chief Executive Kathy Carter, in which she described Thompson as “an exceptional colleague.”
Some Olympics experts didn’t see Thompson’s recusal for the next year as particularly notable and said the more important city-related decisions related to the Games will come closer to 2028.
“The heavy lifting, the detail on how everything is going to look — everything from security, city cleaning, special permitting, all of that — that’s all stuff that gets worked out in the last couple of years,” said Michael R. Payne, a former head of the marketing division at the International Olympic Committee.
Payne also said it’s beneficial to have someone in the mayor’s office who has a background with planning for the Games. He pointed to the 2004 Athens Games and said that the sports director at the organizing committee left to become the head of Olympic operations within the city.
Still, like other Olympics, Athens’ Games far exceeded its budget, which many believe contributed to Greece’s economic downfall.