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New Panels for Local Campaign Reforms Urged

August 27, 1989|BILL BOYARSKY | Times City-County Bureau Chief

A bipartisan research group, charging Los Angeles area enforcement officials with neglect of campaign financing laws, has called for creation of independent commissions to clean up local politics in "a system drunk with cash."

The California Commission on Campaign Financing proposed separate fair political practices commissions for Los Angeles County and for many of the 86 cities within its boundaries. And, it said in a report made public today, the commissions should be given stronger contribution-regulation laws to enforce.

The commission also recommended limiting campaign contributions and expenditures and providing partial public financing of political campaigns.

'Study in Extremes'

In an overview, the study concluded, "Local elections in the Los Angeles metropolitan area are a study in extremes. . . . A wide-ranging mixture of the exemplary and the excessive, the picture of money and politics in the Los Angeles area illustrates the best and the worst in local campaign financing."

In some smaller cities, the commission said, candidates raise money from friends and neighbors, walk precincts, spend minimal amounts and personally meet many voters.

"But in other Los Angeles area communities, candidates exhibit the worst excesses of a system drunk with cash," the report said. "They isolate themselves from the voters, rely on phalanxes of paid political advisers, raise contributions around the clock, accumulate huge war chests in non-election years, scare off challengers, solicit contributions from persons with financial interests pending before them, spend large sums on entertainment, fund raising and travel and communicate with the public through orchestrated media campaigns."

The panel, composed mainly of business and legal leaders, compiled a 373-page report that says "enforcing campaign laws has not been a priority at any level of government."

At present, local officials are in charge of implementing local laws. The state's political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, moves against local officials only when they are suspected of violating state laws but is powerless to enforce local regulations. District attorneys, city attorneys and election officials--those in charge of enforcing local campaign financing laws--are reluctant to do so because mayors, city councils and the Board of Supervisors control their budgets and sometimes hire them, the study commission said.

'Same Elected Fraternity'

And even when district and city attorneys are elected, and presumably independent, they are reluctant to enforce laws because they "are also politicians, subject to the same restrictions as council members or supervisors," the report said. "They all belong to the same elected fraternity."

In particular, the report criticized Los Angeles' elected city attorney, James K. Hahn, for being "reluctant" to enforce the city's campaign financing law, especially in the case of campaign finance law and conflict-of-interest violations by City Councilman Richard Alatorre. Hahn filed a civil suit against Alatorre only after the political watchdog group Common Cause threatened to go to court. Hahn's suit resulted in Alatorre paying the largest fine paid for such a violation in California history--almost $150,000, which came from his campaign fund.

Hahn said he disagrees with the commission characterizing him as "reluctant."

He said he first referred the Alatorre matter to Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner because he feared "a perception" of conflict, since the city attorney is legal adviser to the council. When Reiner did not take the case, Hahn said his office moved ahead with it.

And the commission said Los Angeles City Clerk Elias Martinez, appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley and confirmed by the City Council, delayed investigating allegations of violations against Councilman Robert Farrell and then-Councilwoman Pat Russell until the statute of limitations had run out.

Martinez said his office was hampered in pursuing the two cases because of a shortage of auditors and because the statute of limitations for the offense was too short--just one year. The commission recommended that the statute of limitations be extended for such offenses to four years.

The criticism of Hahn came as the city attorney is investigating conflict-of-interest allegations against the mayor. Some council members have questioned the intensity of Hahn's investigation of a man who has been an old political friend, although the city attorney has pledged a tough and impartial investigation.

County Criticized

In addition to Los Angeles, the commission studied Agoura Hills, Gardena, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Signal Hill and West Covina, as well as Los Angeles County. It reserved some of its toughest words for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, saying:

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