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Flights of fancy

November 09, 2005

MAYBE IT'S THE THIN AIR. Something about flying seems to make this state's two most prominent public officials lightheaded and forgetful, as if the ethical standards that they uphold and even defend on the ground somehow don't apply above 30,000 feet.

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa accepted -- nay, requested -- a flight on a private jet to attend the funeral of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in Detroit. The jet was the property of Ameriquest, a mortgage firm that retains a City Hall lobbyist and has long-standing ties to the mayor.

Like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who leaves for China next week on a state trip funded by business interests, Villaraigosa should know better. When it's official business, as this trip was, it is simply inappropriate to allow private interests to pay for it.

Of course, the mayor has his rationales, none of which is entirely convincing. His spokeswoman said that Villaraigosa needed the services of a private jet because he was asked on short notice to speak at the funeral. He may want to acquaint himself with the Internet, which allows last-minute travelers to book flights; as this is being written, a fare of $438 is available on several sites for a round-trip flight between Los Angeles and Detroit leaving today and returning Thursday. Window or aisle, Mr. Villaraigosa?

The mayor's spokeswoman also said that he plans to reimburse the company for the trip -- for all of $438. This goes beyond the letter of the law, the mayor's office points out, because the law allows him to accept free domestic travel. And he doggedly insists that because the cost will be reimbursed, he "did not accept a gift." This may be true legally, but it is laughable in every other sense: That fare doesn't even come with a free meal. Renting a private jet for a two-day trip between Van Nuys and Detroit would cost $19,500, which means somebody is on the hook for about $19,062.

Speaking of Ameriquest, which is under investigation in California and 32 other states for its lending practices, the mayor has said that he will recuse himself from all city matters involving the company. Yet no one is arguing that Villaraigosa is a dupe of Ameriquest or the mortgage industry, even if he is a former consultant to Ameriquest, and even if the company and its employees have donated almost $200,000 to him and his causes over the last several years.

This is a question not of integrity but of judgment. Both the mayor and the governor made an issue of ethics in their campaigns, so their lack of understanding on this point is bewildering. Whether the trip is to Detroit or China, when public officials travel on public business, the public should pay.

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