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L.A. ethics panel urges ban on some free tickets for top officials

The panel says the ban, which requires council approval, would apply to donors offering free entry to concerts, sports events and cultural activities who have business before the city.

September 15, 2010|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to recommend that high-level officials be barred from receiving free entry to concerts, sports events and other cultural activities if the donor of the free ticket has business pending before the city.

On a 4-1 vote, the panel said such a ban should apply even in cases in which an elected official, city commissioner or high-level manager is performing a ceremonial role, such as handing over a city proclamation.

The action comes three months after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa confirmed that he had attended dozens of events for free without reporting them as gifts or keeping track of the official city business performed at those events. Villaraigosa has said that state law does not identify such tickets as gifts because he was performing an official city duty at the time.

Commissioner Nedra Jenkins, an appointee of former City Controller Laura Chick, cast the lone vote against the ticket ban, saying that elected officials make the city look good by performing official duties at awards shows, film festivals and other events.

"It's as if we believe everybody's corrupt, and I just don't think everybody's corrupt and everybody's subject to undue influence," she said.

Commissioners also agreed to require that officials report the value and source of free tickets, even in cases in which they are performing a ceremonial duty and the donor has no business with the city. They also voted 4 to 1, with Jenkins opposed, to bar high-level officials from accepting gifts of any amount from companies that do business with the city.

The commission will need to vote a second time on the specific language to be included in a revamped gift ordinance. The measure would then head to the City Council for a vote before going into effect.

Since he took office in 2005, Villaraigosa has received free entry to games and concerts from companies seeking a specific decision from the city, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and L.A. Live. AEG has sought approval of tax breaks and new billboards in recent years, while the owners of the Dodgers met with city officials over development plans, shuttle buses and the Los Angeles Marathon.

Stephen J. Kaufman, an attorney for the mayor, had no comment. But Jenkins said she did not like the idea of elected officials having to leave an event abruptly to avoid having to pay. "I don't think the public is sitting in their living room saying, I'm upset that my public official is attending the Oscars," she said.

Commissioner Valerie Vanaman had a different take, saying that companies with business before City Hall could exert "undue influence" by providing free entry to pricey venues. Vanaman said elected officials would still be allowed to perform a ceremonial city duty but should pay their way if they intend to enjoy the entire event.

"I don't think there is any benefit that we get as a city by having them in the audience," said Vanaman, who was appointed by Councilwoman Jan Perry.

In recent years, the mayor has gone for free to the Oscars, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That group has been in talks with the mayor's office over a proposed development project in Hollywood and has weighed in repeatedly on the city's plan for leasing 10 city-owned parking garages, part of Villaraigosa's effort to raise money to stave off new budget cuts.

Any changes to the city's ethics law require approval from the council, which has resisted passing new measures from the panel. For the last year, the council has declined to take up a commission proposal designed to eliminate loopholes in its lobbying ordinance.

Although the commissioners sought to ban high-level officials from accepting gifts from companies that do business with the city, they also agreed to create an exception for "nominal" gifts and office courtesies.

The panel also voted 4 to 1 to give some leeway to officials who did not know that the source of the gift had a contract or another matter pending before a city agency. Commissioner Marlene Canter opposed that provision, calling it a loophole that would make enforcement of the gift ban much more difficult.

"I just want the rules to be as clear as possible," she said. Commission President Helen Zukin said the "knowing" provision would provide "some element of reasonableness" to the city's gift laws.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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