Lawyers from at least 29 local firms that do work for the city have contributed to Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn's reelection bid, sparking criticism by Hahn's challenger and by independent ethicists.
In all, more than a third of the 80 private firms that handle legal work for city government are represented among contributors to Hahn's campaign, to the tune of $24,325 so far. Many of the contributors gave $1,000, the maximum allowed under city law, while in other firms, multiple employees made donations.
The firms and lawyers donating to Hahn have collected about $15 million in taxpayer money over the past five years, city records show. Many were directly chosen or approved by Hahn or his top deputies; staff from the city attorney's office participated in nearly every selection.
Contributors range from Morrison & Foerster, which has collected about $5 million since 1993 for helping Los Angeles International Airport in disputes with the airline industry, to Burke, Williams & Sorenson, which has been paid only $312 in taxpayer dollars, according to city records.
Five attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher gave Hahn a total of $800 last fall, and the firm kicked in $1,000; Gibson, Dunn has a $200,000 city contract to work on the Playa Vista development. Irell & Manella, which has collected $652,000 in legal fees for the First Street North project, wrote Hahn a check for $500 in November. Lisa Greer Quateman has an $84,000 contract with the city attorney's office; she and her husband, Neil, each donated $1,000, the maximum allowed, to Hahn.
The contributions are legal but challenger Ted Stein called them a "flat-out conflict."
"He has put the office up for sale," charged Stein, the Encino lawyer-developer who is running against the 12-year incumbent in the April 8 election. "It's putting his political interests above the interests of the city."
Stein's campaign finance reports show that he, too, has gotten help from scores of lawyers at 19 firms that do work for the city, including a dozen that also are on Hahn's donor list. But Stein had no role in awarding those contracts, and vowed to remove himself from contract decisions if he is elected to avoid potential conflicts.
A former president of the city's Airport Commission, Stein has also received contributions from at least nine companies--including three law firms--that do business for the airport, records show. But Stein said he does not believe he voted on any matters involving his contributors--indeed, he says he returned several checks to avoid such conflicts--and city officials were unable last week to provide a complete list of airport contracts, or the dates they began.
"Candidates get their money from people who are doing business with the city. That's who gives contributions," said Robert M. Stern, co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies, which has analyzed Los Angeles campaign contributions in depth.
"People contribute for a reason. They're not contributing out of some altruistic motive to better educate voters or promote a democratic system--they're contributing to have access, or have influence, on the officeholder," said Stern's colleague at the center, Craig Holman.
"Not only do some contributors give money in order to buy access, they also give money out of fear of losing access. You'll find many people give to both sides in order to avoid any possibility of being viewed as the enemy by whoever wins."
Hahn, and several of the attorneys involved, said in interviews last week that there is absolutely no connection between the contributions and the contracts.
Some of the lawyers said they have been friends and political supporters of Hahn for years; others acknowledged that they met Hahn through their government legal work but insisted that they have won each contract on merit and that they give Hahn money solely because they believe he is doing a good job.
"People who know me know that's not the case," Hahn said when asked whether his contract decisions are motivated by political self-interest. "I'm going to ask people who are my friends to help. They know there's no connection. I don't guarantee anything because someone's my friend. I make sure there's competition for every contract."
But one lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity--for fear of losing future Los Angeles contracts--said contributing to Hahn's campaign is considered the cost of doing business for those bidding on city legal work.
"It's almost a requirement," the lawyer said. "I don't think that I'll [necessarily] get picked, [but] I think that I wouldn't even be considered unless I gave money. Sometimes, I got work and I found out it was obviously political, and not on the merits."
Last fall, according to the lawyer, Hahn called personally to ask for a donation just one week after a request for proposals for a lucrative city contract had arrived on the firm's doorstep. Hahn never suggested that the contract could be bought, but the lawyer said he felt pressured.