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Shame on them

July 25, 2006

IT'S PERFECTLY LEGAL for former Los Angeles city councilman and admitted felon Martin Ludlow to form a committee to raise money to pay his legal expenses, even though raising and spending money was what got him into trouble in the first place. And it's perfectly legal for some of the city's top officials to headline a reception in Holmby Hills, where donors were asked to pay up to $4,000 a pop for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with decision-makers. And with Ludlow.

It's legal. But that doesn't make it right.

That's because of the collective smirk sent to the people of Los Angeles not just by Ludlow but by their representatives, people such as Assembly members Karen Bass and Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rep. Diane Watson and Councilman Herb Wesson. They, by being the main draws at a fundraising event to funnel money to Ludlow, send the message that election laws are no big deal. If you get caught, we understand. We'll help you get back on your feet. Hey, it could have happened to any of us.

Of course, Ludlow is different. He didn't just cheat a little. He cheated a lot. He admitted that, in a very close 2003 City Council race, he conspired to put campaign workers on a union's payroll, hiding their work for him behind salaries paid out of union dues from unsuspecting school bus drivers and cafeteria workers. He was able to use extra, unreported help that his opponent didn't get. And that help was crucial. Ludlow's opponent came in first in the primary, but Ludlow beat him in the general election.

Ludlow left the City Council after two years to take a high-profile labor post, then stepped down from that job as criminal charges were brought. He pleaded guilty to state and federal crimes and admitted violating city laws. At sentencing, he received probation and fines.

Campaign fundraising laws help protect democracy by assuring that the public knows where candidates get their money and that no candidate has an unfair advantage. But elected officials too often scoff quietly at enforcement proceedings and dismiss fines as the cost of doing business -- then get money to pay them off from their donors. That scoffing is in effect what came from Bass, Ridley-Thomas, Watson and Wesson. The same is true of Police Commission President John Mack and attorney Connie Rice, who headed a panel examining corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department.

But what about redemption? Doesn't Ludlow deserve his shot at it?

Of course. But first a little repentance may be in order, and Ludlow has not been exactly brimming with it, at least not publicly. Neither his statements, laced with language about "taking full responsibility" for his "judgment errors," nor a big-money fundraiser in a swank home bespeaks repentance. They instead mock the law and those who believe that elections ought to be free and fair.

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