Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre was fined Tuesday after admitting that he violated conflict-of-interest laws by attempting to steer a $722,500 city contract to an Eastside community organization that had paid him $1,000.
The $2,000 penalty--the maximum that could be imposed--is part of a settlement between the East Los Angeles councilman and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which began investigating the matter a year ago.
The probe focused on Alatorre's 1986 efforts to help the East Los Angeles Community Union, or TELACU, obtain a major city contract to provide dial-a-ride bus service to senior citizens and the handicapped in Alatorre's 14th District.
In the settlement, which was approved by the FPPC meeting in San Francisco Tuesday, Alatorre acknowledged that his actions violated the law because he used "his official City Council position to influence a governmental decision in which he had a financial interest."
But Alatorre denied that the violation was committed knowingly.
Tuesday's fine was the second time Alatorre has run afoul of conflict-of-interest laws since the former Assemblyman was elected to the City Council two years ago. In 1986, Alatorre agreed to pay $141,966--the largest amount ever for violation of California campaign laws--for failing to fully disclose the source of funds used in his successful City Council campaign.
In the latest case, Alatorre personally urged his City Council colleagues to give the bus contract to TELACU and reject a staff endorsement of a higher-rated company. TELACU is a nonprofit development and social service company that came under fire in the early 1980s for its unusual, far-flung investments and questionable business dealings with former Eastside Councilman Art Snyder.
Shortly before Alatorre began lobbying for TELACU, the organization flew the councilman to a meeting at Lake Tahoe and paid him a $1,000 speaking fee.
State law prohibits elected officials who have received gifts of $250 or more from trying to influence decisions affecting the donors.
When the $1,000 payment to Alatorre was disclosed, TELACU withdrew its bid for the bus service contract and another firm was selected.
In a prepared statement issued Tuesday, Alatorre said: "Although regrettable in retrospect, this entire incident seems to me to have been much ado about not much, and I'm glad it has finally been resolved."
The councilman told the FPPC that he had believed that as long as he disclosed speaking fees he received, he was not prohibited from decision-making related to the donors. During his 14 years in the state Assembly, Alatorre said he had never had to disqualify himself in such cases, and he assumed the rules were the same for City Council.
However, the rules are not the same. In contrast to local elected officials, state elected officials, though technically subject to the same restrictions, are specifically excluded from the enforcement provisions.
A spokeswoman for the FPPC said, "That is a loophole we are trying to correct."
The FPPC investigation was prompted by a complaint from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has been active in political reform issues. Fred Woocher, a staff attorney at the center, said his organization went to the FPPC after it failed to get Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn's office to investigate.
A spokesman for Hahn declined to comment Tuesday about the FPPC action or the city attorney office's handling of the earlier complaint.
Woocher said he is satisfied with the FPPC action, but added, "It remains to be seen whether the city attorney and Councilman Alatorre take this to heart."
In any event, Woocher said, Alatorre's explanation of his conduct illustrates the "outrageous" loopholes that exist in conflict-of-interest laws.
"What we have there is a law that Alatorre freely admits is violated at the state level so widely that people don't even realize it's illegal," he said. "Then they come here and start doing the same thing at the local level, and all of sudden, someone points out it is a violation. . . .
"It just shows how these guys up (in Sacramento) conduct business."