Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson has agreed to pay $18,500 in fines for accepting campaign contributions that exceeded legal limits, the city Ethics Commission announced Monday.
The fine is the second-largest the commission has levied against an elected official. It also marked the third time that Bernson, a Granada Hills resident, has been penalized for violating city ethics laws.
The councilman said the latest fine resulted from an error by his accountant, who did not properly track the contributions. "We made a mistake and we are paying for it," Bernson said in a statement issued by his office.
Bernson's 1999 primary election campaign accepted and deposited 26 contributions that exceeded the $500 per-person limit on individual donations. The contributions totaled $11,600, including money from Police Commissioner Bert Boeckmann, Pacific Theaters Corp., Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Building Owners and Managers of Greater Los Angeles PAC.
In some cases, ethics auditors discovered that checks for contributions from different sources were signed by the same people.
Bernson faced a maximum possible fine of $130,000, or $5,000 per violation. Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham said she agreed to the lower penalty in part because Bernson returned most of the excess contributions after the election.
"There is no evidence that the violations were committed intentionally or willfully," the agreement signed by Pelham and Bernson said.
Last year, Bernson was fined $3,000 for accepting an improper amount of free legal services from the law firm of City Hall lobbyist Neil Papiano.
Papiano and others in his firm had been advising Bernson in a 1997 ethics dispute, in which the councilman was fined $1,500 for using political officeholder funds to buy season tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
The agreement settling the current case goes to the commission on Wednesday for ratification. The biggest fine the commission imposed on an elected official is the $27,500 levied against Councilman Nate Holden in 1999.