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Weiss' Fine Slashed by Ethics Panel

Board imposes a $4,800 levy for mailers in 2001 race, not the $25,200 urged by an official.

November 09, 2005|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission overruled its chief of enforcement Tuesday and slashed fines proposed against City Councilman Jack Weiss for failing to file copies of all 32 mass mailers he sent to voters in his hotly contested 2001 election.

Deena Ghaly, the panel's enforcement director, had recommended that Weiss face $25,200 in fines for 32 counts of not properly filing mass mailers and eight counts of not properly disclosing spending on meals and other expenses.

Ghaly called the violations severe and extreme, adding, "It's unprecedented to have a candidate fail to file every piece of mail."

Weiss, who refused to comment to reporters as he left the hearing, previously admitted that he had failed to properly file all mail he sent to voters.

However, the panel waived fines for the expense reporting violations and decided to fine Weiss $4,800 for the mailer violations. The panel agreed with an administrative law judge, who said after a lengthy hearing on the case that a fine of $150 per violation is reasonable for inadvertent offenses.

City ethics laws require candidates to file copies of all mailers within 24 hours of when they are sent to voters, so there is a central clearinghouse where the public can inspect all mail.

However, commissioners argued Tuesday that once mailers were sent to voters, they were in the public domain and available for review even if Weiss did not meet the requirement of filing copies with the commission.

"The only reason Mr. Weiss is sitting here today as a member of the City Council is because of those mailers," Commissioner Sean Treglia said. But he added, "There is nothing in the evidence to suggest that the failure to file those mailers had any effect on the outcome of the campaign. There is just no severity here."

He added that the higher fines recommended by Ghaly would "discourage people from running for office."

Weiss, and his attorney, Ronald Turovsky, admitted that the mailings were not properly filed but said the lapse was unintentional and the fault of campaign staff members.

Turovsky originally argued to an administrative law judge that a warning letter would be appropriate, but on Tuesday he supported the $4,800 fine.

"We consider this to be a stiff fine," he said.

Unlike most elected officials who agree to settle cases and pay the fines proposed by Ghaly, Weiss took the relatively unusual position of challenging the fine and demanding a hearing.

A former federal prosecutor, Weiss is reportedly weighing a run for city attorney. If he enters the race, a large fine from the Ethics Commission could be used against him. Weiss' opponent in the 2001 election, Tom Hayden, lost by a narrow margin in a race featuring mailers that Ghaly called "hit pieces."

Hayden asked the commission to take the violations seriously.

"I think it's very hard to argue that those 32 mass mailings that were not publicly disclosed had no impact on the results. You have an election that was settled by 369 votes," Hayden told the panel Tuesday.

The vote to set the fines at $4,800 was 3 to 1, with Commissioner Bill Boyarsky arguing that the fines were inadequate.

"I think that the violation was of a serious nature, that it probably swung the election, so I favor the higher fine recommended by the staff," Boyarsky said.

He agreed with the majority of the commission to waive fines for eight charges that Weiss failed to properly disclose spending from his political officeholder account after the election.

"He certainly should have notified the Ethics Commission about these expenditures, but they were small expenditures, legal, and they did notify the state," Boyarsky said.

In testimony to the panel, businessman Mort Allen questioned the effect of the fine, noting that the Ethics Commission does not require sitting politicians to pay penalties out of their own pockets, but instead allows elected officials to pay the fines with political contributions raised from supporters.

That discrepancy became clear later, when the commission considered whether to impose $4,000 in fines against former council candidate Carl Washington, who does not hold elective office and therefore faced the prospect of paying the fines with his own money.

Given that burden, the commission agreed to reduce Washington's fines to $1,200.

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Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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