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Bernson May Sue Ethics Panel

City Hall: Councilman says he no longer uses a political account to buy concert tickets, but insists he has the right to do so.

May 01, 1996|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to criticism from the city's Ethics Commission, Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson said Tuesday that he has stopped using money from his political officeholder account to buy season tickets to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In the latest of several run-ins with Bernson, the commission warned the councilman in a letter last month that he is under investigation for allegedly violating ethics rules last year when he spent $1,320 from the account for the tickets, according to Bernson's staff.

Council officeholder accounts are funded from contributions by supporters and can only be used for expenses related to running a council office, such as holding community meetings or contributing to local nonprofit groups. They cannot be used for campaign-related costs.

Although Bernson disagrees with the commission, he said he paid for the tickets this year out of his own pocket to avoid further clashes with the panel. Nonetheless, he vowed to fight the commission, suggesting he may sue the panel and its former executive director, Ben Bycel.

"I'm testing it," he said of the commission's decision. "I'm going to fight it."

If the panel determines Bernson violated ethics codes, he could be fined.

Bernson, who has long used the account to buy tickets to the philharmonic, said the expenditure is valid because he takes constituents and other officials to the concerts to discuss city issues in a relaxed setting.

Rebecca Avila, executive director of the Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the matter Tuesday, saying she cannot discuss panel investigations.

In the past, however, ethics officials have said that the account can be used for entertainment purposes but only if the elected official can explain how the expense is related to doing his job. For example, the account can be used to entertain a visiting dignitary, they have said.

Ethics officials have said that Bernson has failed to explain how tickets to concerts are connected to his official duties.

Part of the dispute is that in last year's officeholder expense report, Bernson listed the tickets as a contribution to a nonprofit or charitable organization.

If he had listed the tickets as an entertainment expense, ethics laws would have required him to list the people who attended the concerts with him and explain why the event was connected to executing his official duties.

Bernson said his attorney has told him that he can list the expense as a contribution because the philharmonic is a nonprofit organization.

The controversy marks Bernson's latest run-in with the Ethics Commission. In the past, the panel has criticized him for using officeholder and campaign funds for foreign travel, expensive meals and gifts. But he has not been fined in the past.

Bernson has repeatedly blamed the disputes on Bycel, saying that the former Ethics Commission chief has been biased and hostile toward him. Although Bycel was replaced several months ago by Avila, Bernson said he still may sue Bycel personally for continuing a vendetta against him.

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