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2 Panelists Focus of L.A. Ethics Inquiry

The city attorney's office is looking into whether the officials on the airport and harbor commissions solicited funds for the mayor.

September 11, 2004|Patrick McGreevy and Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles city attorney began an inquiry Friday to determine whether two city commissioners violated ethics laws by hosting political fundraisers for Mayor James K. Hahn that were attended by firms with recent or pending business before them.

And two of Hahn's challengers in the mayor's race called on harbor commission President Nick Tonsich to step down because of his involvement with one of the fundraising events.

The Times reported Friday that Tonsich and former airport commission President Ted Stein played key roles in raising more than $80,000 from businesses that had either recently won contracts or were negotiating for leases at the harbor and airport.

Tonsich put his name on the invitation to a Hahn reelection fundraiser held at an estate in Rolling Hills in 2003. Donors to that event were directed to send their checks to his law firm.

Companies and executives represented at the fundraiser contributed at least $10,000 to Hahn either while they were in negotiations with the port or after they had recently won business from the harbor commission.

Stein held a fundraiser at his home in Encino in 2002 for Hahn's campaign against San Fernando Valley secession.

At least four guests at the fundraiser represented companies that had been awarded contracts or leases by the airport commission between four and nine months before the event.

Stein was president of the commission at the time; he stepped down earlier this year amid scrutiny of his fundraising activities.

The city ethics law states that a city commissioner shall not "solicit, direct or receive any contribution" for a city campaign from anyone with contracts or other business pending before him or her or anyone who has had such business in the preceding 12 months. The city attorney may prosecute violations of the ethics law as misdemeanors.

"We have a prosecutor in our office who is looking into this," said Chief Deputy City Atty. Terree A. Bowers. "Our prosecutor is looking at it from a criminal perspective to see if there is any ability to proceed on criminal charges."

In addition, Bowers said an attorney was assigned to consult with the Ethics Commission on whether that panel has any jurisdiction, and the city attorney's office is communicating with federal and county prosecutors about the fundraising activities.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced months ago that his office was conducting an investigation into whether the award of contracts at the port and in other departments have been affected by contributions.

"Our investigation is continuing," Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Cooley, said on Friday, refusing to comment further.

Bill Boyarsky, a former Times editor who is now a member of the City Ethics Commission, said he believed the commission should look into the circumstances around the fundraisers more closely.

"The intent of the law is very clear," said Boyarsky. "Were they trying to evade the law? That is the question."

Hahn's political opponents also focused attention on the fundraising. State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) and Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who are both candidates for mayor, said Friday that Tonsich should step down because his actions did not comply with the spirit of the ethics law.

Parks, at a news conference on the steps of City Hall, called on Hahn to return the contributions received at the two fundraisers and to disclose who attended each event.

The mayor said Friday that he was standing by Tonsich and rejected the idea that contributions should be returned. He also sent a letter to Parks, criticizing him for holding a news conference "instead of taking action in council chambers on the ethics reforms I proposed six months ago."

Hahn proposed earlier this year to ban political contributions by city contractors and land-use permit applicants, as well as prohibiting political consultants from lobbying elected officials. The proposal is still pending in the Ethics Commission and has not yet reached the City Council.

Hahn said that both Tonsich and Stein complied with the law and repeated his argument that someone who hosts a fundraiser does not necessarily solicit contributions.

"Different people are involved in fundraisers," the mayor said. "Some people are soliciting contributions from some of the people who come," and some supporters are soliciting from other guests.

Alarcon criticized those comments. "I don't see how anyone can suggest that someone whose name is on an invitation is not soliciting contributions," Alarcon said. "I think the voters understand what is going on. And they don't like it." Parks called on the authorities to investigate the fundraising activity of Hahn-appointed commissioners.

Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a candidate for mayor, agreed with Parks that Hahn should release the invitations and invitation lists for the fundraisers hosted by Tonsich and Stein. "Let's be transparent here," he said.

Hertzberg said the fundraising underscored the need for campaign finance reform. "Clearly the system is broken and we need to fix it."

Tonsich and Stein did not return calls for comment Friday. But Tonsich said in a recent interview that he did not solicit harbor tenants to contribute to Hahn.

Also Friday, one of the guests at the event at Stein's home, who had said in an earlier interview that Stein had invited him, said that Stein did not ask him to contribute to the anti-secession campaign.

The guest, Joe Czyzyk, said he had received an invitation in the mail. His company, Mercury Air Group Inc., had been awarded a replacement lease by the airport commission nine months before Stein's fundraiser.

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