A majority of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission said Tuesday that elected officials should be required to report the value of free tickets they receive to concerts, sports events and other cultural activities — even when they are attending as part of their official duties.
As they reviewed a plan to update the city's disclosure law and ensure that gifts are not a factor in government decisions, three of the panel's five members expressed support for a provision that would require the mayor, the City Council, department heads and other high-level officials to state what official business they performed at each free event.
The proposal comes at a time when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is under scrutiny for attending at least 85 events free of charge since 2005, sometimes on the dime of companies with business before his administration. Villaraigosa has argued that the tickets — including entry to at least 15 Dodgers games — did not qualify as gifts under state law because he was representing the city at the time.
However, the mayor did not keep a formal record of those events, which are now being reviewed by three investigative agencies, including the Ethics Commission. The mayor's legal team spent weeks trying to patch together the details to show his reasons for going but failed to identify the donors of tickets to at least two dozen events.
If the commission approves the disclosure plan next month, the proposal would be forwarded to the City Council for a vote. The commission is also reviewing a plan to bar elected officials from receiving gifts from anyone who has business pending before them.
State law requires elected officials to report any gift worth more than $50 and bars them from accepting gifts worth more than $420 over a 12-month period.
In Los Angeles, the law is stricter, prohibiting decision-makers from receiving a gift worth more than $100 from anyone who has business pending before them.
Heather Holt, the ethics panel's director of policy and legislation, said the public has an interest in knowing what tickets are provided and the ceremonial duties that helped a politician avoid paying for them. Still, some members of the commission voiced doubts about an additional proposal, also recommended by Holt, to require elected officials to leave a concert or game once they have finished performing their ceremonial duties.
"If these [rules] aren't reasonable, then they aren't going to be followed one way or the other," said Commission President Helen Zukin.
Commissioner Marlene Canter, a former school board member, said she did not think that officials who attend a free concert or game as part of their ceremonial duties should have to depart early. Still, she advised her colleagues to be mindful of the various strategies used by special interests to influence politicians.
"I have been there," she said. "I know it comes in many, many, many different forms."
Villaraigosa received free tickets to at least three Academy Awards shows from an organization that has been in talks with city officials about development and parking issues in Hollywood. The Dodgers organization has also weighed in on such issues as city financing of a shuttle to the team's stadium.
Anschutz Entertainment Group said it has welcomed Villaraigosa into its luxury suites at Staples Center and Nokia Theatre. The mayor backed a tax break of at least $246 million for an AEG hotel complex downtown early in his administration and more recently supported AEG's efforts to install new oversized signs.
Villaraigosa's office did not comment on Tuesday's discussion. But officials with the Ethics Commission appeared to support the mayor's argument that a free ticket to a cultural event is not a gift if a ceremonial duty is performed.
Holt, the commission's policy director, also said that simply showing up at a free event should not be considered a ceremonial duty. The mayor's lawyer has suggested that Villaraigosa's very attendance at an event is an official act.
The Ethics Commission will continue reviewing its gift law next month. Whether the council will follow any of its recommendations is unclear.
Although the panel voted last year to recommend an overhaul of the city's lobbying ordinance, that proposal has sat in a committee headed by Council President Eric Garcetti for nearly a year without coming up for a vote.