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Ethics Panel Drops Ban on Lobbyists : Contributions: City Council opposition prompts deletion of item from reform package.


Facing opposition from members of the Los Angeles City Council, ethics officials dropped a proposal Friday that would have prohibited lobbyists who have a matter before a city agency from making contributions to elected city officials.

The ban was part of a long-awaited reform package proposed by the city's Ethics Commission to regulate contributions to special officeholder accounts controlled by each elected city official.

The decision to delete the ban came as the set of spending limits and disclosure rules moved a step closer to adoption Friday. The Council's Rules and Elections Committee voted to support some of the limits and scheduled later hearings to consider other elements of the package.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Benjamin Bycel said he decided to drop the ban after the panel's chairman, Councilman Richard Alatorre, told him "loud and clear in words that I could understand that it would not pass the committee."

After the meeting, Alatorre said he told Bycel that the ban on lobbyist contributions was not a key change in the reform package and would not win support of the entire council. He said he didn't want to jeopardize the entire reform package for the sake of keeping the ban.

Bycel "didn't have the votes for it," Alatorre said. "Why put something out there that he didn't have the votes for?"

Alatorre added that council opposition to the ban stemmed from the belief some members had that lobbyists should not be "singled out and treated differently" from other contributors.

The amount of contributions from lobbyists vary from officeholder to officeholder but in most cases amounts to less than half of all donations.

Although Bycel said the ban was a key measure in the package, he said other changes will give ethics officials more power to regulate the spending of elected officials.

"Before we had a 10-watt light bulb on the activity in the officeholder accounts," he said. "Now we have a 200-watt light bulb."

The officeholder accounts were created as part of a landmark ethics package adopted in 1990 after a conflict-of-interest scandal surrounding then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Under current rules, the city's elected officials can only use contributions from officeholder accounts for legitimate governmental or political purposes.

But a call for reform grew, in part, out of complaints that former City Councilman Michael Woo used his officeholder account illegally in 1991 and 1992 to get an early start on his campaign for mayor.

Councilman Hal Bernson was the latest elected official to run foul of the officeholder regulations when the Ethics Commission accused the San Fernando Valley lawmaker in April of failing to provide adequate documentation on 69 expenditures totaling $30,905 from his account in 1991.

Bycel and other Ethics Commission officials said they could not act on either case because the law was too vague.

After the committee meeting, Bernson declined to comment, saying he had not seen the reform package.

Under the proposed new laws, City Council members, the mayor, city controller and the city attorney would be able to collect and spend a maximum of $75,000 a year, an increase from the $25,000 limit. But contributions from individuals, which had been unlimited, would be capped at $1,000 annually.

The laws would also put a halt to the practice by some council members of spending the funds to pay for memberships in athletic clubs and religious groups.

Next week, the Rules and Elections Committee will begin considering several other new requirements to provide increased disclosure to show how an expenditure is related to legitimate governmental or political purposes.

For instance, Bernson was criticized for spending thousands of dollars on dozens of expensive meals, gifts and sports and entertainment tickets. Under the proposed disclosure laws, elected officials must explain who those meals were with, who received the gifts and why those tickets were essential to "assisting, or serving or communicating with constituents." The changes would also require more disclosure on travel expenses.

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