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Rules on Politics Fines May Change

Elected officials can use campaign funds, but L.A.'s ethics panel may try to prohibit that.

November 05, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Amid concern that Los Angeles' elected leaders are escaping personal responsibility for misconduct, city officials and others called Tuesday for a ban or limit on the practice of paying ethics fines with campaign contributions.

The change was proposed in response to a report by The Times on Tuesday that Mayor James K. Hahn had been able to pay a $53,000 fine for campaign-finance violations by tapping lobbyists, city contractors and 15 city commissioners to donate as much as $1,000 each to his legal defense fund.

The practice is legal and common at Los Angeles City Hall. Those who helped Hahn pay the fines said Tuesday that they are regular supporters of the mayor and had not felt any pressure to help out.

"Anybody who serves in public office is sacrificing in ways you and I don't appreciate," said Department of Water and Power Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava, who said he had donated after hearing of the fines by "word of mouth."

Others said elected officials should have to pay out of their own pockets when fined for ethics violations.

"To me it's a question of accountability," said former Ethics Commission President Richard Walsh, head of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

"If someone else is paying the fines, we are not holding people accountable for violating ethics rules," Walsh said.

The issue was discussed briefly Tuesday by the City Ethics Commission, after which Commissioner Bill Boyarsky, a former Times editor, said he would ask the panel's staff to explore changing the law to require elected officials to pay all or part of their fines themselves.

"I never have liked that," Boyarsky said of the current policy. "I think that really defeats the purpose of the law, that you have broken the law and you are fined, and then you go out and have a fund-raiser with the very same people."

City Councilman Eric Garcetti said he also supports changing the law.

"I'm for officeholders paying something personally, but it should be done in a proportional way. For a Dick Riordan it's no skin off his wallet," Garcetti said, referring to the multimillionaire former mayor. "For somebody who is a single parent raising kids, it is harder."

Lisa Specht, an attorney and city parks commissioner who donated to the Jim Hahn Legal Defense Fund, said she thinks the current policy is a good one.

"It would be a mistake to make elected officials pay these fines personally," Specht said. "Most elected officials are not as well paid as those of us in the private sector. Second, I would like the folks I elect -- whether at the city, the county or the state level -- to keep their eye on the ball and not spend their time trying to find a second job to pay off fines."

Some backers of the current law have argued that the Ethics Commission would be unable to impose such large fines if the money had to be paid from politicians' personal accounts.

That trade-off would be acceptable to Walsh, who said Tuesday he would prefer to see politicians pay fines out of their own pockets, even if it meant the fines had to be reduced to avoid causing hardships.

The Ethics Commission, which was created when voters approved an ethics reform ballot measure in 1990, has always allowed elected officials to pay fines with political contributions.

The panel has done so, in large measure because the 1990 ballot measure authorized elected officials and city candidates to create legal-defense funds. The ordinance enacting that law allows the funds to raise money "solely to defray attorney's fees and other legal costs," which the commission has interpreted over the years to include payment of administrative fines, officials said.

People who contribute to campaigns but are not candidates cannot form political committees to cover fines if they are found to have violated campaign finance law. They must pay the fines out of their own pockets.

On Tuesday, the Ethics Commission approved fines for two businesspeople, both of whom said it was unfair that they had to pay out of their own pockets when city candidates did not.

Environmental consultant Romena Jonas and her firm, Jonas & Associates, were fined $1,000 for exceeding the aggregate campaign contribution limit when she and her firm both gave money to the mayoral campaign of Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001.

Jonas paid the fine from her company account, even though she said that it was a hardship and that she had not been told by Villaraigosa's campaign that there was a $1,000 limit on what she and her firm could contribute in aggregate.

"I think that's unfair," she said when told candidates could pay fines out of contributions but businesspeople could not.

In the second case Tuesday, Nevin Samli and his firm Samli, Pastore & Hill were fined $1,350 for exceeding the aggregate contribution limit with donations to the 2001 city attorney campaign of Rocky Delgadillo and the Villaraigosa mayoral campaign.

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