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Lobbyists' Dual Role Alarms Critics

Government: Many double as paid political advisors, which worries ethics experts. City officials say they keep the relationships separate and avoid conflicts of interest.

February 11, 2001|PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As city commissioners recently debated whether to award the lucrative Greek Theatre contract to House of Blues Concerts Inc., one of the firm's top lobbyists, Steven Afriat, listened in via speaker from the comfortable office of City Councilwoman Laura Chick, the firm's chief council backer.

Few at Los Angeles City Hall would be surprised that Afriat enjoyed the insider accommodations: In addition to serving as a lobbyist for clients seeking Chick's favor, Afriat is the political consultant running Chick's campaign for city controller.

Afriat is not alone in enjoying special ties to the council members he lobbies. Another House of Blues lobbyist, Rick Taylor, listened to part of the Greek Theatre hearing with Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski in her office. Taylor is Miscikowski's campaign consultant for her reelection bid, and he was the political strategist who helped Councilman Alex Padilla get elected in 1999.

Such incestuous political relationships are commonplace at City Hall, where two-thirds of the City Council members have, at one time or another, hired lobbyists who also want their votes.

In one high-profile battle--the contest between House of Blues and Nederlander-Greek Inc. over control of the Greek--seven of the 14 City Council members likely to vote on the matter have at some point hired for political work the same lobbyists whose clients are bidding on the contract. Most of those lobbyists represent the House of Blues, which is seeking to wrestle the contract from current manager Nederlander-Greek.

The proliferation of lobbyists who double as paid political advisors has alarmed many watchdog groups and ethics experts.

"The problem obviously is that lobbyists are able to wield undue influence when they leverage their position as campaign consultants with those they lobby," said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. "It's a conflict. It's not appropriate."

The lobbyists and elected officials defend the arrangements, saying they can keep their relationships as lobbyists and lobbied separate from their roles as advisors and politicians. "It's a business relationship. You are paying for someone to run your campaign," Chick said of her hiring of Afriat. "For seven and a half years, I have based my decisions on the merits. If I based my decisions on who I know, it would be impossible. I have a variety of friends on both sides of many issues."

Afriat agreed.

"Sometimes she [Chick] votes on positions I support, and sometimes she doesn't," he said. He noted that the councilwoman voted for open Internet access for cable franchises while he represented a client, AT&T, which was opposed.

Afriat has received more than $31,000 from Chick's campaign for controller. He also has worked as a paid political consultant for Councilman Mike Hernandez and was a paid fund-raiser for Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr.

Some Suggest More Regulation

Taylor, whose other lobbying clients include the J. Paul Getty Trust, City Cab Co. and American Golf Inc., also insisted that there is no conflict between lobbying and consulting. "The last person the candidates owe a favor is the campaign consultant, because they pay us for our services," he said.

But the benefits to lobbyists of such relationships were bluntly attested to in a mailer Afriat's firm sent to prospective lobbying clients three years ago. "The secret of Afriat's success is the political consulting arm of our firm--we represent elected officials in fund-raising and campaign management," the mailer boasted.

City rules require disclosure of such interlinking relationships but do not prohibit them. Both Afriat and Taylor openly acknowledged that they had listened to the Recreation and Parks Commission meeting about the Greek Theatre in the council members' offices.

The relationships are not limited to current officeholders; candidates in April's City Council elections have also hired registered city lobbyists to help run their campaigns.

Bob Stern, who coauthored the state's 1974 Political Reform Act, said the city Ethics Commission should consider regulating the practice.

"I find it very troubling," Stern said. "Clearly, it gives the lobbyist tremendous access that the average person does not have."

Even some lobbyists say the dual role is cause for concern.

"I personally think it's a conflict," said Arnie Berghoff, whose clients include Browning Ferris Industries, the operator of Sunshine Canyon Landfill, whose expansion was in the council's hands last year. "When you run someone's campaign, it creates a completely different relationship. The perception is wrong."

Veteran lobbyist and campaign consultant Harvey Englander does not believe working on a council member's election campaign gives a lobbyist undue influence, but he acknowledged that the perception exists and that alone can boost business for the lobbyists.

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