Seeking to curb the potentially corrupting influence of big campaign contributions, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission on Friday voted to maintain some limits on campaign donations to candidates, even if their competitors spend personal riches in a campaign.
The commission's interpretation of a 1985 campaign reform ballot measure was viewed by analysts of the mayoral campaign as a victory for civic activist and multimillionaire Richard Riordan and a setback for other candidates.
The vote on the so-called rich-man provision of the city's campaign finance law means that mayoral candidates will be allowed to accept no more than $7,000 from an individual contributor--and may take that much only if an opponent spends more than $30,000 in personal funds on the campaign.
Under the 1985 campaign reform law approved by Los Angeles voters, contributors were limited to donations of $500 to City Council candidates and $1,000 to mayoral candidates per election.
Those limits will remain in place under the commission decision Friday unless a rich candidate uses his personal fortune to campaign. A city attorney's opinion last month had suggested that all limits be lifted in that case. But the five-member panel voted 4 to 1 to reject that argument.
Instead, the commission kept in place a limit of $7,000, the amount a single contributor can give to all candidates for City Council, mayor, city attorney and controller in a given city election. Contributors can spread that amount around as they see fit--giving it all to one candidate or dividing it among many.
Under the ruling, candidates can collect the larger contributions increments of up to $7,000 until they equal the amount of personal funds that the wealthy candidate has brought into the race.
"If you took all the limits off, you would just destroy the system that all the voters approved, without ever giving it a chance," said Commissioner Edwin Guthman.
Commissioner Cynthia Telles said that the ballot measure did not clearly define the rich-man provision, but that it appeared voters intended to limit contributions "because of a concern about giving an unfair advantage to monied special interests."
Commissioners said that they hope a system of public matching funds that will be in place for the first time in the upcoming elections will help make candidates financially competitive without lifting all contribution limits.
Friday's vote, however, may not settle the issue.
City Councilman Nate Holden, a mayoral hopeful, said he intends to bring the commission's decision before the council, where it could be overturned. The City Council has previously pledged not to overturn Ethics Commission actions, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the body. But Holden said the commission action had so badly misinterpreted the voters' intention in imposing campaign reform that he felt compelled to intervene.
In addition, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky on Friday won unanimous approval from the council to take the first step toward returning the question of the rich-man provision to voters in April.
The council asked the city attorney's office to draft language for a ballot measure that would lift all campaign contribution limits when a candidate spends more than $30,000 in personal funds. If voters lifted the limits, the new rules would be in place for an expected June runoff in the mayor's race.
Riordan praised the commission's action, saying it would curtail the influence of political action committees and other special interest groups. "It eliminates the potential for corruption that can result from large campaign contributions from special interests that have made the people cynical toward government and politics," Riordan said.
Riordan, whose fortune has been estimated at $100 million, has said he hopes to limit the amount of his own money he spends in the campaign, although Friday he called it "a good prediction" that he will spend some.
Yaroslavsky, who had called for the Ethics Commission ruling last month, said the resulting decision could "allow one or more candidates to buy the election."
"It would be a horrendous miscarriage of justice . . . to allow one candidate to spend unlimited sums and hold everyone else back," he said.
The ruling eliminates the level playing field for the upcoming mayoral election, according to officials representing at least two other hopefuls--City Councilman Michael Woo and Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City). Woo used more than $250,000 of his banker father's money in winning his council seat, and Katz has drawn donations of up to $20,000 from unions in his statewide races.
"It's unfortunate that, in the name of reform, they are giving the rich man an advantage and limiting people's ability of trying to equalize that," Katz said.