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FRIDAY REPORT

They're Accounted For

L.A.'s elected officials get special funds--largely from lobbyists--used for dining and travel. What council members cite as taxpayer savings, a reformer calls a 'legal bribe.'

July 02, 1999|PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An aficionado of modern art, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs recently attended an exhibition by sculptor Richard Serra in Bilbao, Spain, but he didn't want to pay the air fare out of his own pocket.

So Wachs did what many council members do when traveling abroad: He tapped a special political fund for the trip.

As did Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg for a recent trip to China, and Councilwoman Laura Chick, who traveled to Mexico.

Indeed, almost all of the city's 18 elected officials have used their political "officeholder accounts" for expensive meals, gifts, flowers, travel and other perks. In total, 17 of the elected officials spent $640,328 last year from their officeholder accounts.

The problem, critics of the practice say, is that most of the officeholder accounts are filled with political contributions from powerful lobbyists and businesspeople seeking the elected officials' vote on contracts and permits.

Craig Holeman, executive director of the Californians for Political Reform Coalition, said it is outrageous that elected city officials are essentially taking foreign trips and expensive meals on the tab of lobbyists wanting their votes for clients.

"That is just lobbyist money providing entertainment for an elected official, for their personal benefit," Holeman said. "That's what I would consider to be a legal bribe."

Born nine years ago out of political compromise, the city officeholder account law has sparked heated debate ever since, with some reformers calling for the accounts to be abolished and politicians saying that they need the funds to help them serve their constituents.

Voters have twice approved severe limits on officeholder accounts, but the courts have blocked enforcement of the restrictions. A stricter set of rules governing the accounts took effect Thursday in Los Angeles.

Some, like Holeman and Los Angeles Ethics Commissioner Art Mattox, want to ban the accounts altogether, saying that they serve no useful purpose.

"My personal opinion is they should be eliminated," Mattox said. "We need the council members making decisions that are in the best interest of all people, rather than just a particular faction that contributes to them."

Chick said she went to Mexico for a Spanish immersion course that will help her serve constituents. Goldberg went to China for fact-finding discussions with Chinese electric utility officials.

Goldberg says she does not accept lobbyist money, but she does take contributions from city employee unions and firms that are doing business with the city.

Wachs said he was representing the city and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art at an exhibition of sculptures by Serra, a New York artist, and taxpayers should be glad they did not have to foot the bill.

"I never, ever charge foreign trips to the taxpayers," Wachs said. "I just don't think it's good going off to Europe at the expense of the taxpayers."

Wachs used his officeholder account during the past year for more than $8,000 in meals at restaurants such as Cafe Pinot and Musso and Frank in Los Angeles, Zafferano in London and Ste Mamsouria in Paris.

Although 65% of the contributions to his officeholder account last year came from lobbyists, city employee unions and firms doing business with the city, Wachs said there is no quid pro quo.

"After 28 years on the City Council, [people] know I've been as independent as anybody has been here," he said.

Others agree that the funds are not cause for concern. The accounts give elected city officials who face budget constraints a pot of discretionary funds to help them serve and communicate with their constituents, supporters say.

"It provides a certain flexibility for the council members to lead, to solve problems in the community," said Xandra Kayden, president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.

Kayden served in 1989 as executive director of a city commission formed to draft new ethics laws after a series of scandals involving then-Mayor Tom Bradley's personal finances.

The panel proposed sweeping reforms that included limits on the use of campaign funds that had previously been widely spent for the personal benefit of elected officials.

But the commission had to strike a deal to get the council to put the reforms on the ballot, Kayden said. Council members demanded that the package be linked to a 40% pay raise for the council and the explicit authority to keep officeholder accounts.

"They weren't really a reform. They were a legislative compromise," said Rebecca Avila, executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

Few Rules Set in the Beginning

The rules established at the time were few. Elected officials could raise up to $25,000 in political contributions annually to pay for expenses associated with their holding government office.

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