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D.A. probes officials' election spending

Inquiry centers on whether a campaign panel was controlled by two Valley politicians, sources say.

September 06, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney has opened an investigation into whether two San Fernando Valley politicians illegally exceeded election spending limits by raising money through an independent campaign committee, sources familiar with the matter said.

Prosecutors and investigators with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission have spent the last three months asking questions about the committee and whether it was controlled by two political allies: state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) and Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas.

State law bars elected officials from controlling independent expenditure committees, which usually have no limit on how much they can raise from individual donors or spend on candidates.

Determining exactly who controls such committees can be tricky, however. California's government code is vague on the topic and says elected officials control a committee if they, or their representatives, have a "significant influence" on its actions.

Investigators with Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's Public Integrity Division have served search warrants as part of the investigation, issuing one to Burbank-based accountant Kinde Durkee, two sources said this week. Durkee is listed on the committee campaign contribution reports as treasurer -- and is the only contact for the group.

The Citizens for Dependable and Reliable Leadership committee was formed in February 2005. It supported candidates in the San Fernando City Council election and, a year later, the 2006 candidacy of Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.

The committee spent its largest sum on behalf of the 2005 mayoral bid of then-City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, allocating $54,000 for campaign postcards and other expenses, according to campaign finance reports. Three Villaraigosa mailers featured photos of Padilla and Cardenas, and a fourth had images of Padilla and L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar.

At the time, Padilla and Cardenas were council members representing the northeast Valley. Both had been supporters of incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn but switched to backing Villaraigosa in the campaign's final weeks. In that same period, the committee spent its money on Villaraigosa's behalf, according to spending reports.

Villaraigosa is not a subject of the probe, sources said.

Padilla's attorney, Stephen Kaufman, said his client did not control the committee and is "not aware of whether anyone else controlled the committee."

Cardenas' attorney, Fred Woocher, said his client also did not control Citizens for Dependable and Reliable Leadership and does not know who did.

"He had no role in forming, controlling, deciding, spending -- anything you would consider to be controlling that committee," Woocher added.

Investigators have also been asking questions about Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), who was Padilla's chief of staff in 2005 and 2006 and now represents part of the Valley. A lawyer for Fuentes said his client "will continue to cooperate fully in any inquiry."

An ethics commission investigator met on July 10 with two high-level officials from the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "What they really seemed to be interested in was this citizens committee -- who controlled it and how it operates," said county Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman, who described himself as a "third-party witness" in the case.

The executive director of the Democratic group, Adam Seiden, was also present at the meeting.

In 2006, the county's Democratic Party gave nearly $28,000 to Citizens for Dependable and Reliable Leadership, which then used the money to make automated phone calls to voters on behalf of Garamendi. Bauman said he spoke directly with Durkee on the matter and never had any contact with Cardenas, Padilla or Fuentes.

A year before it supported Garamendi, the committee hired political consultant Leo Briones, then the husband of now former state Sen. Martha Escutia, to produce campaign mail promoting Villaraigosa's 2005 mayoral bid.

During that campaign, the committee collected at least $10,500 in contributions from real estate developers -- and their employees and relatives -- who have built projects in Padilla's former council district.

Another donor was Simi Valley businessman Jim Dantona, who gave $500 and persuaded three family members to do the same. Dantona said he could not recall precisely why he gave to the committee but suspected that he was asked by Cardenas to contribute.

"I can't attest to that 100%, but I'm about 95% sure, because I just have a great deal of respect for Tony Cardenas," Dantona said. "So when he calls, I'm happy to help him."

In the first few weeks after it formed, Citizens for Dependable and Reliable Leadership attempted to unseat San Fernando Councilwoman Maribel De La Torre, sending two attack mailers against her. One flier criticized De La Torre and her sister, then-Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez -- both politicians who have been at odds with Padilla and Cardenas.

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