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Finance law does little to curb mayor's fundraising

Many private sources that give generously to his projects have business with City Hall.

December 18, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arranged a reception celebrating trade with Mexico, two real estate developers stepped in to pay the $25,000 catering bill. One wants city approval for the 5,553-home subdivision known as Las Lomas.

When Villaraigosa welcomed then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the mayor's mansion, four companies covered the $60,000 tab. One is building condominiums in Hollywood, and another wants the city's help in revitalizing a historic theater district.

And when Villaraigosa was host for four days of festivities for the U.S. Conference of Mayors last summer, he took in $1.6 million from dozens of contributors, many of whom do business with City Hall.

Two decades ago, Los Angeles voters approved a campaign finance law that prohibits citywide candidates from raising more than $1,000 from a single donor in each election cycle, a move designed to prevent special interests from wielding too much influence over a politician.

But during his first two years in office, the mayor raised $19.6 million for his favorite political, policy and philanthropic causes, largely by asking scores of companies and individuals for five- and six-figure contributions.

The money raised for those causes is triple the $6.45 million Villaraigosa collected from private donors during the 2005 mayor's race, a Los Angeles Times review has found. Though the $1,000-limit applied to the mayoral campaign, no such rule exists for the money Villaraigosa has raised since taking office.

The efforts dwarf the fundraising of the mayor's predecessor, James K. Hahn, who faced criticism for the six-figure contributions he collected during his fight against the San Fernando Valley secession drive.

From July 2005 to July 2007, the mayor collected donations for more than a dozen causes, including the after-school program L.A.'s Best, the campaign to plant 1 million trees, legislation to give the mayor more power over public schools, the campaign to elect a new school board majority, a proposal to give signing bonuses to new police officers, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Villaraigosa has more than three dozen donors who have given $75,000 or more, many of whom spread their contributions across multiple mayoral initiatives. The donors include charitable foundations, insurance companies, city contractors and real estate developers with projects across Los Angeles.

The mayor's willingness to tap so many companies for so many initiatives unnerves some neighborhood leaders, who contend that City Hall has become an uneven playing field, where big contributors have far more pull than the average citizen.

"The money we're talking about, that is . . . just a lot of goodwill," said Laura Lake, a Westwood-based activist who also works as a land-use consultant. "It means that every call will be returned [by city officials] and every effort will be made to accommodate requests" from the people who gave the money.

Villaraigosa declined to comment directly for this report.

But spokesman Matt Szabo said the contributions do not in any way affect how the mayor or his appointees handle city projects. Villaraigosa has a duty to "inspire the business community" -- and spare taxpayers from paying for certain city initiatives, Szabo said.

"The mayor will continue to challenge the businesses who benefit from what Los Angeles offers," Szabo added. "He will continue to challenge those businesses to contribute to solutions to L.A.'s problems."

The Times analysis included only the first two years of Villaraigosa's term because some fundraising reports covering the last five months don't have to be submitted until next year. As a result, the Times did not factor in money accepted since July 1, including a $50-million philanthropic contribution to the mayor's latest education initiative.

Asking for charitable contributions is now standard practice for statewide elected officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Atty Gen. Jerry Brown. Still, with so many opportunities to give at City Hall, Villaraigosa has taken charitable fundraising to a new level, one campaign finance expert argued.

"People are giving to him for the same reason that they are giving campaign contributions, and that's to be on the good side of the mayor and to be recognized by him," said Robert Stern, the president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies who helped write California's political reform act. "This is, in a sense, the new form of campaign contributions."

Some of the mayor's biggest donors have long been believers in his education vision, including billionaire Eli Broad, who contributed $3.6 million to L.A.'s Best and personally called state lawmakers in 2006 in an effort to help Villaraigosa gain control over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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