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Ethics Panel OKs Settlement With Alatorre

Government: Official says probe of councilman exemplifies the commission's watchdog role.

September 19, 1997|ROBERT J. LOPEZ and RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre's illegal City Hall intervention on behalf of a company founded by his wife "goes to the heart" of the reason voters approved a landmark ethics reform law seven years ago, a top investigator in the case said Thursday.

Laurie Tabachnik, director of enforcement and legal affairs for the city Ethics Commission, made her comments as the panel formally approved a settlement in which Alatorre agreed to pay $6,000 in penalties, most of it for misuse of his official position.

Alatorre admitted violating the law by making a phone call last year to the city's top charity regulator seeking a license extension for the small company, Eventfully Yours, where his wife was a key executive. At the time, Eventfully Yours' license to stage charitable fund-raisers had been revoked because the firm had failed to provide the city with detailed financial information.

The councilman's intervention allowed Eventfully Yours to collect at least $13,000 in subsequent fund-raising fees, according to the Ethics Commission settlement with Alatorre.

The Eastside councilman, who was not present at Thursday's meeting, has said he did not recall making a call to charity regulators on behalf of the company his wife founded in 1987. But he said he could not dispute evidence gathered by investigators that he acted improperly.

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"When the voters voted to create the Ethics Commission, one thing they were trying to get at is elected officials who think the regular rules don't apply to them," said the Ethics Commission's Tabachnik, offering the panel's first comments on the investigation. "When Councilman Alatorre was making this phone call, he was using his office to get something normal citizens can't get.

"He paid the maximum fine allowable by law. We take these violations, such as misuse of the power of office, very seriously because they go to the heart of [our] mission."

The Times disclosed Alatorre's actions in July in a story examining his fund-raising ties to two children's charities that exclusively hired Eventfully Yours to stage events and help collect contributions.

Ethics Commission members approved the settlement with little discussion after granting Alatorre a one-week extension to pay the first installment of the penalty. Alatorre also has agreed to pay a $2,000 penalty for his intervention to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which is expected to approve a separate settlement agreement next month.

An aide to Alatorre has said the money will not come out of the councilman's pocket but rather from a legal defense fund, for which contributions will be sought.

Only days ago, the ethics investigation of Alatorre appeared headed toward a major confrontation after the lawmaker failed to comply with a subpoena ordering him to give sworn testimony. In an unprecedented step, the Ethics Commission sued Alatorre, seeking to force him to appear and answer investigators questions under oath.

But that looming showdown quickly dissolved after Alatorre retained new attorneys, including longtime associate Jack Quinn, who helped steer the dispute toward a settlement. Quinn spoke only briefly Thursday, complimenting the commission's staff. "We didn't fight," he said. "They educated us."

Ethics Commission President Ed Guthman said he, too, was pleased with the outcome.

"Councilman Alatorre has made a mistake," Guthman said. "He's admitted it, he's paying a fine and the commission has met its responsibilities."

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Meanwhile, the inspector general's office of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is continuing to investigate two charities Alatorre has championed that have been heavily funded by contributions from individuals and contractors with government business. Besides his position on the City Council, Alatorre is an influential member of the MTA's governing board.

What's more, Eventfully Yours remains under investigation by the state attorney general's office for the firm's failure to file financial information on its operations for five years.

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