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Energetic Ethics Panel

June 02, 2004

To a cynic, the rapidly multiplying investigations into City Hall campaign contributions are confirmation that Los Angeles government is hopelessly corrupt. That's a lazy verdict, and not just because it precedes convictions or guilty pleas. Yes, the sheer extent of the scrutiny signals that something could be seriously amiss. But it also shows that the city's Ethics Commission is alive, well and pushing hard for reform.

Federal and local grand juries are trying to determine whether contractors have been forced to "pay to play" -- make political contributions to win or maintain lucrative contracts at Los Angeles' port, airport and water and power departments. So far, two city commissioners have resigned, along with a key aide to Mayor James K. Hahn.

Additionally, prosecutors are investigating allegations that donors got around state and city laws limiting campaign contributions by laundering the money. A misdemeanor complaint unsealed Tuesday charged well-known attorney Pierce O'Donnell with soliciting contributions to Hahn's 2001 campaign from friends and associates, then reimbursing them.

In November, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley indicted an executive of Alan Casden's real estate development company and 13 subcontractors, alleging a similar conspiracy to make illegal campaign donations.

City and state laws limit contributions to $1,000 per donor. The reason is spelled out in the Los Angeles City Charter: "The financial strength of certain individuals or organizations should not permit them to exercise a disproportionate or controlling influence on the election of candidates."

This is one thing Los Angeles is doing right. Not every city requires candidates to regularly report their contributions. Not every city opens these records to the public. And not every city has an Ethics Commission willing to enforce the rules. Sources have told The Times that tips from the commission, which does not comment publicly on investigations in progress, set off the probes.

"L.A. is lucky in that the city Ethics Commission is very strong," says Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "Look across the country: Other agencies are not given the resources or don't have the willpower to take on the politicians."

It would be preferable, Stern said, if politicians and their backers knew better than to try to get away with laundering contributions or trading them for favors. But the next best thing is having a system in place that will catch them if they don't.

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