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County Weighs Limits on Lobbying

The proposed rules come too late, however, to have barred work by Supervisor Knabe's son.

February 28, 2006|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors are set to vote today to tighten their lobbying rules, but the proposal has not impressed political watchdog groups and comes too late to have blocked Supervisor Don Knabe's son from trying to influence county decisions.

The measure, which mirrors long-established rules at Los Angeles City Hall, would prohibit county officeholders and many employees from taking payments to influence their former agencies for a year after leaving the county.

Such "revolving door" policies are intended to prevent conflicts of interest and reduce the chance that government employees will use their jobs to negotiate lucrative future employment with companies seeking contracts, permits and other county business.

After reviewing the proposed rules, political ethics experts noted that they would not affect several former county officials, including Matt Knabe, whose father has represented the South Bay coastal communities for more than nine years.

Matt Knabe spent six years working as a deputy to his father but left in July 2004 to become a lobbyist. His father voted in March 2005 to award a multimillion-dollar contract to a Dallas-based software firm that had hired Matt Knabe's firm.

"It's an embarrassment that the county has sat without this for so long," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan group based in Santa Monica. "Too often, officials in government are making decisions with one eye on the door."

At a board meeting in November, Knabe voted with other supervisors to approve adding the one-year restriction on former county employees. Today they are scheduled to vote on whether to approve the rule's final language, which was written by county lawyers.

Knabe, who in an earlier interview defended his son's right to work as a lobbyist, said through a spokesman that he intended to support the proposed policy but had nothing further to say. His son did not return calls seeking comment.

The original campaign for the rule came from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. On Monday, Yaroslavsky said he was motivated not by Matt Knabe's lobbying but by allegations made public last year that a county administrator involved in real estate development deals gave a developer preferential treatment.

Those assertions did not involve lobbying, but Yaroslavsky said that the allegations reinforced the possibility that county officials could be tempted by the prospect of future financial gains to help firms doing business with the county.

"There's just no separation between county service and private service in the county government," Yaroslavsky said. "It's uncharacteristic of how most governments operate.... I find the appearance to be troubling for the public, and rightly so."

If approved by a majority of the five supervisors, the new rule would take effect in 30 days.

It would not apply to all county employees but only to elected officeholders, along with employees and commissioners who are required under state law to file conflict-of-interest disclosure statements. That group includes hundreds of employees who have responsibilities that affect financial decisions by county government.

As well as a one-year moratorium on lobbying former county agencies, the proposed rule would ban any kind of lobbying on matters in which the official had personal and substantial involvement while working for the county. Those found breaking the rule could face misdemeanor criminal charges or fines up to $5,000 per violation.

Along with Matt Knabe, other employees joining the ranks of lobbyists within one year of leaving the county include:

* Ellen Fitzgerald, who in October left the Department of Regional Planning, where she oversaw a small group of county planners who check whether proposed developments meet state and county rules on subdivisions. Fitzgerald's section examined subdivision plans for the Valencia Co.'s Newhall Ranch and West Creek development projects.

In January, Fitzgerald registered as a lobbyist with the engineering firm Psomas and Associates, which represents the Valencia Co., among other clients.

Fitzgerald declined to comment, but the county's director of regional planning described her as a diligent employee who was not afraid of offending developers if the law required.

"Ellen always came with extremely high remarks from all of her supervisors," James E. Hartl said.

* Charles J. Moore, who left the county counsel's office in 1998 and two months later registered as a lobbyist with the law firm of Cox, Castle & Nicholson. As a county lawyer, Moore had advised the county's Planning Commission, said Richard Weiss, assistant county counsel.

Moore's firm has represented developers and other firms with business before the commission and the Department of Regional Planning, including the company that operates the Sunshine Canyon Landfill.

Moore could not be reached for comment.

One employee who works in Yaroslavsky's office has gone out and back in through the "revolving door."

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