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Ethics Panel to Weigh 'Soft Money' Reforms

Campaigns: Proposed changes are prompted by increase in expenditures that circumvent the city's contribution and spending limits.

April 16, 2002|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission today will consider a sweeping set of rules aimed at countering an increase in so-called soft money that some believe is undermining the city's limits on campaign contributions and spending.

The proposed changes were prompted by concerns that last year's campaigns in Los Angeles, particularly for mayor and city attorney, were influenced by substantial spending outside the city's control.

The Ethics Commission, established by Los Angeles voters a dozen years ago to reduce the influence of special interests at City Hall, finds itself buffeted by the same kind of forces affecting campaigns at the state and national level. While the city sets limits on campaign contributions and spending by candidates who agree to accept public matching money, it has little control over so-called independent expenditures, which have become popular tools of special interest groups.

This noncandidate spending soared to a record of $3.2 million in city races last year.

Powered by donations from billboard companies, Indian tribes, labor unions and political parties, the expenditures circumvented the city's contribution and spending limits. In particular, massive amounts of money poured into efforts to elect James K. Hahn or Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor and Rocky Delgadillo as city attorney.

Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham said a 54-page report to be presented to the commission this morning offers a blueprint for "significant and meaningful improvements" in the city's political reform laws.

The proposed changes, which must be approved by the City Council, would increase the amount of public matching funds a candidate can receive under certain situations. Currently the city will match contributions of up to $500 for citywide races and $250 for council races dollar for dollar for candidates that abide by campaign spending limits.

That 1-to-1 match would be boosted to a 3-to-1 match for candidates who abide by spending limits and face any of three situations. It would apply to those who are:

Running against a wealthy candidate waging a largely self-funded campaign;

Targeted by advertising bought by independent expenditures;

In a race with a candidate who is supported by independent expenditures.

For example, a $500 contribution from an individual to a candidate for mayor, city attorney or controller would grow to $2,000 after the candidate receives $1,500 in public matching money. A City Council candidate who raises $250 from an individual could get $750 in matching money.

The approach is designed to encourage fund-raising in smaller amounts from individuals to offset the impact of big checks from businesses, political action committees and more affluent donors.

For this approach to work, the Ethics Commission would have to establish a way to determine which candidate benefits from independent spending on mailers, advertising and other campaign activities. The commission also would have to set a threshold of independent expenditures that would trigger the increased match of public money.

The commission also will decide whether to require officials who receive large amounts of free space on billboards not to participate in decisions affecting the company involved. That proposal is certain to generate criticism.

Mayor Hahn and City Atty. Delgadillo both received hundreds of thousands of dollars in free billboard space last year. The city attorney's office, which provides legal advice to the Ethics Commission, has issued a written opinion saying there are constitutional problems with requiring an official to recuse himself or herself from voting on matters affecting a substantial donor.

In addition, the commission wants to tighten laws defining cooperation between political campaigns and those making independent expenditures.

That question is being considered by the commission in the wake of an investigation by the district attorney's office into circumstances surrounding a $100,000 independent expenditure by the Soboba Band of Mission Indians against former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa. The contribution was solicited by a political operative with connections to the Hahn campaign.

The reform package would also require those making independent expenditures to report their spending within 24 hours and provide a text or copy of their mailers or commercials. Such an approach could put the city on a collision course with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

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