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Ethics Panel Fines 3 Councilmen Over Campaign Donations

Government: Penalties against Hernandez, Ridley-Thomas and Ferraro are first under 1985 law. Commission says errors were unintentional.

March 23, 1999|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission approved settlements Monday calling for fines totally $13,700 against three city councilmen who accepted campaign contributions exceeding the city limit.

The fines given City Council President John Ferraro and Councilmen Mike Hernandez and Mark Ridley-Thomas are the first levied by the Ethics Commission under the campaign contribution limits established in 1985.

Commission President Richard Walch and commission Executive Director Rebecca Avila said they do not believe there was any intentional wrongdoing by the lawmakers. But they added that the actions should put all elected officials--and their campaign treasurers--on notice.

"We do think compliance with these campaign finance laws should be taken seriously," Walch said.

City law allows candidates to accept individual contributions of up to $500 in primary elections. The fines came after recently completed audits of the 1995 and 1997 city elections.

The commission staff audited 27 election committees in connection to the 1995 election and 26 campaign committees in connection to the 1997 election.

Under the settlements approved unanimously by the commission Monday, Hernandez will pay the most: $6,200 for 10 excessive contributions totaling $4,100 to his reelection committee. His 1997 campaign committee raised $280,427 for the primary.

"From my perspective, they were bookkeeping errors," Hernandez said. "They were among hundreds of legitimate contributions."

Ridley-Thomas was fined $4,200 for 20 excessive contributions totaling $1,850 in the 1995 primary; his campaign committee raised $307,905 for the election. A committee that raised $222,650 for Ridley-Thomas' officeholder account was cited for failing to maintain required records for about $12,000 in expenditures.

Ridley-Thomas was not available for comment Monday but said in his settlement agreement that the mistakes were unintentional.

Ferraro was fined $3,300 for six excessive contributions totaling $2,150 for his 1995 reelection campaign. He raised $274,274 for that primary election.

"It was an honest error," said Gayle Johnson, Ferraro's spokeswoman.

The settlements between the commission and the councilmen show some errors were made when a business owner gave a donation in his name and then gave again in the name of the company. Others occurred when companies donated less than $500 two or more times to the council member, exceeding the limit.

Avila, of the Ethics Commission, said the campaign contribution laws require mandatory audits of donations to candidates but that the commission had a backlog after the 1993 city elections. Audits of this year's city elections, in which eight council seats are open, will probably begin in the fall.

Fines are negotiated directly between the commission and individual lawmakers.

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