Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council took steps Tuesday to tighten ethics standards to prevent city commissioners and other officials from misusing their power for political or financial gain.
The actions came as an ethics expert and others questioned the propriety of Villaraigosa's inaugural gala, which allowed firms that have business before city officials to spend up to $100,000 to attend. The money from Thursday's event went to a publicly funded charity that is run out of the mayor's office.
The ethics reforms enacted by the mayor and council were praised by good government advocates as long overdue. But several, including Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in the Los Angeles area, were troubled by the mayor's decision to host a fundraiser that collected money from developers, city contractors and lobbyists, among others.
"They are giving the money to the charity to please the mayor," Josephson said. "You ought not be soliciting anything from anybody who wants something from you."
Villaraigosa based much of his successful campaign against Mayor James K. Hahn on his pledge to clean up City Hall and ensure that contributions were not influencing city decisions. Federal and county grand juries continue to look into whether city contracts were tied to Hahn's political fundraising.
On Tuesday, the City Council adopted four new laws aimed at issues raised by the grand jury probes, including a ban on city commissioners participating in the process of evaluating and recommending city contracts that their commissions will eventually vote on.
There were complaints that some Hahn commissioners met with bidders for contracts at the same time they were raising money for him, creating an impression that bidders had to "pay to play."
The council also banned commissioners Tuesday from earning money to lobby City Hall, and it required paid campaign consultants and fundraisers to register with the city Ethics Commission and take classes on campaign finance rules.
The council also required lobbyists to file their quarterly activity reports online to make it easier for the public to follow their actions.
"I believe the reforms passed today will hold political appointees and politicians to the highest ethical standards," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who wrote some of the changes.
Villaraigosa appeared before the council to urge support for the measures, saying he understood that some Angelenos viewed City Hall with suspicion. "I'm committed to making the changes necessary for local government to earn the public's trust back," he said.
Separately, the mayor signed an executive directive Tuesday that requires his staff and his appointees to commissions to attend annual ethics training and sign an ethics pledge. He also ordered commissioners to excuse themselves from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest and to notify the Ethics Commission and the mayor's office of every such recusal.
The issue came up recently in connection with the president of the Harbor Commission, Nicholas Tonsich, who removed himself from several votes on issues that posed a conflict of interest but failed to notify the Ethics Commission of his recusals.
Villaraigosa also named Thomas Saenz, a former attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as his top legal advisor and ethics officer. Hahn had an attorney who served as a deputy mayor and advised him but did not carry the same title. Riordan was the last mayor to have his own chief legal counsel.
"Let's be clear. Honesty and ethics in City Hall start at the top," Villaraigosa said in his first news conference at City Hall. "We are the public's servants. We must set a higher benchmark by our actions to restore the public's faith and trust in local government. Today, we have begun to do just that."
However, Josephson and others raised concerns about the black-tie gala dinner at which dozens of businesses paid up to $100,000 each for their executives to attend the exclusive event with the new mayor at the Music Center. The dinner raised about $2 million for LA's BEST, a city-funded after-school program that serves 130 elementary schools.
One of the $100,000 donors was L.A. Arena Co., owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who is also co-owner of Staples Center.
The company signed an agreement with the city in 2001 to participate in building a $1-billion entertainment and shopping district near the Los Angeles Convention Center. The project will include a 55-story hotel that would receive up to $177 million in city subsidies.
An affiliated entity, Anschutz Entertainment Group, is hoping to win approval from the mayor and the City Council for the final subsidy agreement in the next three months.
Josephson said he was troubled that businesses, at the behest of the mayor, were donating to a charity just before the mayor and the council were expected to take action on issues affecting those businesses.