Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has argued for weeks that his acceptance of free tickets to concerts, awards shows and athletic events is not subject to state gift disclosure law because his attendance is part of his official duties.
Yet beyond the thorny legal issues, Villaraigosa faces a political question: Can he drive a hard bargain with entities that do millions of dollars in business with the city if they are also giving him access to pricey entertainment?
Villaraigosa has been spotted in a box behind home plate singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with Frank McCourt, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, at one of 15 games he says he attended free of charge since 2005. Yet he and his appointees are also charged with addressing issues involving the stadium and the McCourt-owned Los Angeles Marathon.
Anschutz Entertainment Group confirmed recently that it welcomed the mayor into its own luxury suites at Staples Center and Nokia Theatre — two venues that it owns — during an unknown number of games and concerts. Villaraigosa supported AEG in a recent dustup over billboards and backed its 2005 request for at least $246 million in tax breaks for a hotel at L.A. Live.
Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave Villaraigosa free entry to three Oscar shows, has been pressing the mayor's team on a major city initiative — the plan to generate tens of millions of dollars by leasing city-owned parking garages.
The city's ethics law seeks to avoid such potential conflicts of interest by banning elected officials from accepting gifts of more than $100 from "restricted sources" — individuals and companies that do business with the city. Villaraigosa contends that the 85 events that he has attended are not gifts because he was there for ceremonial or official purposes.
Still, one neighborhood activist said that regardless of the ethics laws, the free events contribute to a "culture of comfort and accommodation" at City Hall.
Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Assn., said there should be automatic public disclosure of tickets given to the mayor — a practice now under scrutiny from two investigative agencies. She also warned that some politicians would have difficulty rejecting a request for planning approvals or financial assistance from a company that has welcomed them to major events.
"I think there are some who can say no, whether they get a free ticket or not. But for others it's harder," she said. "I don't know the mayor personally, but I believe that there is a very comfortable relationship with certain power brokers in the city and our city government."
On Friday, as they released hundreds of pages of documents about his free tickets, Villaraigosa's legal advisors countered that his appearances at such events made up only a tiny fraction of his more than 3,000 visits to community groups, churches and nonprofit organizations. And the mayor said none of the free tickets colored any of the decisions he made on behalf of city taxpayers.
"That's my job — to keep things like that separate," he told reporters last week.
Roberta Boardman, a 76-year-old resident of Northridge, also defended the practice, saying Los Angeles mayors have a duty to appear at major sports events and awards shows.
"As much as I don't like the mayor and think he's doing a lousy job, I think he should be at these things," the retiree said. "He's the mayor. He has the right to be at anything that showcases the city."
So far, Villaraigosa has confirmed only that he received two free tickets to an AEG facility over five years. However, several of the concerts and sports events for which he failed to identify a ticket contributor — part of last week's release of documents — were at AEG venues.
Although AEG has not provided details on the number of times the mayor got in free to its venues, it released a statement underlining the need for local politicians to recognize community members at its events with proclamations or certificates.
"We take the ethics rules seriously and we understand that, under such rules, it is appropriate and lawful for elected officials to attend events without charge when performing official or ceremonial functions," the company said.
Like AEG, the Dodgers regularly send its lobbyists and executives to meet with the mayor's aides. In recent years, the team's owners have resisted calls from some civic leaders, including City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, to help pay for a shuttle bus that carries passengers to Dodger stadium.
Villaraigosa's appointees could face a much bigger issue in coming years, if the Dodgers press ahead with plans for a proposed $500-million stadium upgrade.