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City OKs Politics Reform Plan

New law, approved unanimously, bans the raising of campaign money by commission members for local elected officials.

March 03, 2004|Patrick McGreevy and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Against the backdrop of federal and local investigations into possible corruption in Los Angeles, the City Council voted Tuesday to prohibit city commissioners from raising campaign funds for local elected officials.

Mayor James K. Hahn, who appoints most of the city's 350 commissioners, immediately signed the new law, calling it "a significant first step in addressing the perceived link between fundraising and access to city government."

The ban is expected to radically alter the way candidates raise money for municipal elections. Council members said it would prevent even the appearance that officials may be engaging in "pay to play" -- the trading of favorable treatment during contract negotiations for campaign contributions from bidders.

Two councilmen, Bernard Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa, also took the unusual step of calling for the removal of Airport Commissioner Ted Stein and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, who have been criticized for their roles in the awarding of lucrative airport contracts.

"Here we are today, passing this ordinance because a couple of people have done the wrong thing, not the right thing," Villaraigosa said on the council floor. The mayor's office needs "to say it's time to go."

Because of a few Hahn administration officials, Villaraigosa said, "Every one of us has been cast with a pall of disrepute."

Parks said, "They need to make the right decision to move on as it relates to the health and welfare of this city."

Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Hahn found the calls for removing Stein and Edwards unfair. "The facts aren't in yet," Murphy said. Hahn "hasn't been presented with any evidence of wrongdoing."

Stein said, "There is no substance to any of the pay-to-play allegations." Edwards could not be reached for comment.

After the unanimous vote for the fundraising ban, the mayor released a letter to council members urging them to adopt a more comprehensive package of reforms. Hahn's plan would prohibit contributions and fundraising by contractors and land-use applicants. It also would prohibit campaign consultants from lobbying city officials and outlaw lobbyists from raising money for elected officials.

The mayor, whose commissioners have raised tens of thousands of dollars for his reelection bid, opposed the council-backed fundraising ban for weeks before radically switching his position late last month to propose his own broader package.

Council members have not embraced the mayor's proposal. Some called it disingenuous, and many said it should be debated by the city's Ethics Commission before going before the council. Some also suggested that, if the mayor were serious about reform, he would concentrate on investigating allegations of wrongdoing in his own administration.

The Ethics Commission is scheduled to take up the mayor's proposal Tuesday. In the meantime, many council members portrayed the fundraising ban as a significant victory.

"I believe this sends a very strong message that we are serious about ethics reform and will make sure that pay-to-play politics will not exist," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, co-author of the measure.

Similar proposals have died in the past, but with at least two investigations pending into city contracting, ethics issues have taken on a new urgency.

The council's action was taken a few months after City Controller Laura Chick released a scathing audit of contracting at the city Airports Department and said she had turned up evidence of "potential illegal acts."

Within weeks of Chick's Dec. 15 audit, Los Angeles County and federal grand juries launched investigations into contracting and possible favoritism at city departments run by powerful city commissioners who are also active fundraisers for Mayor Hahn's reelection.

The law, expected to take effect April 11, prohibits commissioners from requesting, either in writing or verbally, that another person contribute to a city political candidate or ballot measure.

A commissioner's name cannot be used on invitations to fundraisers and the events cannot be held at commissioners' homes or offices.

Any member of a city board or commission who violates the new ordinance faces misdemeanor charges and fines of as much as $5,000 per incident.

The city's system of 54 boards and commissions was set up to allow public oversight of city operations. Although most of the panel members appointed by the mayor work without pay, several of the panels have power to approve million-dollar contracts or planning permits for new construction projects.

And while every council member supported the ban, a few expressed reservations that it did not go far enough or that it contained huge loopholes.

"I don't know what everybody was congratulating themselves for," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister. "We didn't really do anything that significant."

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