A video showing Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman physically intimidating a Santa Monica resident who attempts to ask questions of city council candidate Armen Melkonians surfaced over the weekend, drawing concerns from many, including State Senator Ben Allen.
In the video, Melkonians stands nearby, smiling and filming with his phone, as Shenkman repeatedly steps in front of and towards a much physically smaller Santa Monica voter, Joel Koury. At one point, Melkonians asks Koury, “Why are you a racist?”
The origins of this peculiar and disturbing interaction date back years to a lawsuit filed by Shenkman against the City of Santa Monica. The stakes, which include a multimillion-dollar payout for Shenkman if the city decides to settle the case, couldn’t be higher—and likely hinge on whether Melkonians is elected.
Shenkman is an attorney who made a name for himself—and secured many large payouts—suing cities across the state of California, alleging their at-large election systems dilute minority voting power in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
After a successful case against the city of Palmdale, which netted him millions in attorney’s fees, Shenkman began a cottage industry suing, or threatening to sue, hundreds of voting districts across the state.
Many municipalities—which lacked the resources or the willingness to take the risk—decided to settle, paying Shenkman and switching to a district-based voting system, regardless of whether that would actually result in better representation of minority populations within the communities. But Santa Monica decided to fight due to the fact that, according to census tract analysis, creating districts that would actually empower minority residents would not be possible and would likely reduce diversity on the Council.
Shenkman’s case in Santa Monica was filed on behalf of the Pico Neighborhood Association when now-Santa Monica City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre served on its board, and de la Torre’s wife, Maria Loya.
The case worked its way to the California District Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the City on the grounds that Santa Monica, where Latinos account for only 14 percent of the voting population, could not feasibly draw a district in which Latinos would constitute a majority of the electorate.
The case is now before the California Supreme Court, which also seems poised to rule in favor of the City—unless the Santa Monica City Council decides to settle with Shenkman first, something the majority of the current City Council has shown they have no desire to do.
De la Torre was initially excluded from participating in City legal conferences and decisions relating to the case due to his close ties to the lawsuit. As reported in the Santa Monica Lookout, the City “council majority noted [that] de la Torre has been deeply involved in the litigation…playing a lead role when it was initiated nearly five years ago and sitting in on depositions.”
But after filing a separate lawsuit, de la Torre won a preliminary ruling saying he had the right to weigh in on the case he helped initiate against the city, which became final when the city chose to settle the lawsuit with de la Torre. It is unclear why the city chose to settle the case.
Councilmembers de la Torre, Phil Brock, and Christine Parra together represent three votes in favor of Santa Monica shifting to district elections. If elected, Melkonians—who Shenkman is enthusiastically supporting as evidenced by the above video—would be the fourth. Together they would be a majority capable of voting in favor of settling the case—and handing over tens of millions of dollars to Shenkman, who would be entitled to legal fees for his multi-year fight against the City, regardless of the merit of his suit.During the video, the Santa Monica resident repeatedly asks Melkonians if he would vote to settle Shenkman’s case against the city. Each time, Melkonians refuses to answer, despite having previously told the Lookout that he agrees the city should stop fighting Shenkman’s CVRA lawsuit. Instead, Shenkman answers this resident’s question with physical intimidation, a stunning and disturbing escalation of the political temperature in a community increasingly beset by heated political rhetoric.