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L.A. mayor to pay fines for accepting free tickets to pricey events

Villaraigosa agrees to pay nearly $42,000 to resolve two probes. He had argued he performed ceremonial duties at the events. The state watchdog says it was 'official activity' but didn't rise to the ceremonial level.

April 02, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, center, sits with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg at a game between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals at Staples Center on May 2, 2010.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, center, sits with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg… (Noah Graham / Getty Images )

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has agreed to pay nearly $42,000 in fines to resolve state and city investigations into his practice of accepting tickets to sports events, concerts and other pricey entertainment activities without reporting them as gifts.

The penalty would be the largest of its kind under California's ethics law if approved by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the city Ethics Commission.

In a pact drafted by officials with both agencies, Villaraigosa acknowledged that he had failed to report free tickets to 34 events during his first five years in office, including Los Angeles Lakers games and concerts at such venues as Staples Center, L.A. Live and Universal City's Gibson Amphitheatre.

For months, the mayor had insisted that his acceptance of tickets to at least 85 events did not violate state law because at the time he was performing ceremonial duties, such as throwing out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game.

Villaraigosa's lawyers also had asserted that there was confusion surrounding the laws that govern politicians' attendance at major events. And they said the mayor went to expensive events such as the Academy Awards, the American Idol Finale and concerts by Shakira and the Spice Girls as the city's official representative.

The mayor's office did not keep track of the duties performed at those events, some of which were staged by companies with business pending before his office.

FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter said there were occasions when Villaraigosa's activities should still have been reported as gifts. "There's no question that when he was appearing at these events, he was performing some type of official activity," Porter said. "But it didn't rise to the level of a ceremonial duty."

Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, described the sum as "a significant amount of money" and predicted that it would serve as a warning to other politicians.

"I think this will draw enough attention to [the laws] that other officials will be very careful about the events they go to, and make sure that they're complying with the regulations," Stern said.

Villaraigosa had faced a maximum fine of more than $167,000 from the two agencies. The penalty agreement negotiated by the mayor's lawyer had a smaller amount, largely because investigators concluded that his violations were unintentional and that he made a "good faith" attempt to comply with the law, according to the agreement.

Villaraigosa said Friday that he was "fully accountable" for his actions. "It is my responsibility to make sure I act in strict compliance with the applicable rules," he said in a one-page statement.

Since the mayor's ticket practices were disclosed last year, the Ethics Commission has voted to bar the city's elected officials from accepting free tickets even at events where they are performing ceremonial duties or conducting official city business. That proposal is still being drafted for a final vote of the commission.

After the ticket controversy became public, Villaraigosa's office reworked its protocols for his attendance at pricey events. On Thursday, he went to the Dodgers' opening day and shook hands, gave interviews and met with fans, said Deputy Mayor Sarah Sheahan.

He paid for the game out of his officeholder account, which contains money raised directly from Villaraigosa's contributors.

That stands in sharp contrast to the practice used for much of the mayor's tenure.

In 2005, shortly after Villaraigosa was elected, a lobbyist for Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, sent the mayor's office an email pointing out that the could not legally accept a free ticket to a Lakers game unless he showed up with a "proclamation" or a city document honoring a group or individual, or performed some other "official role."

Since then, Villaraigosa has gone to free concerts and games at both Staples and L.A. Live, AEG's entertainment complex. AEG is now seeking the city's assistance with the development of a football stadium. That project would involve the reconstruction of part of the L.A. Convention Center and require the city to issue $350 million in bonds.

In 2006, Villaraigosa took a proclamation to a concert at Staples featuring the Mexican pop star Luis Miguel that declared that day "Luis Miguel Day." Two years later, he saw the same performer again at L.A. Live, bringing with him a proclamation that welcomed Luis Miguel to Los Angeles.

Ethics Commission staff concluded that in 12 cases, Villaraigosa violated a provision of the law that barred him from accepting a gift of more than $100 from an entity that lobbies City Hall. Those donors included AEG and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which stages the Oscars.

To pay off the fine, Villaraigosa has created three legal defense funds: one for the city, one for the state and one for the ongoing inquiry by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. The mayor's lawyers believe that that inquiry will end once the fines are paid, mayoral aides said.

Brian Currey, Villaraigosa's in-house counsel, estimated last year that the most frequent donor of free tickets to the mayor was the Dodgers, whose owners and representatives met repeatedly with representatives of the mayor on such issues as shuttle buses and arrangements for the Los Angeles Marathon. Villaraigosa's office already has a set of tickets that can be purchased by mayoral employees.

Porter said laws governing the disclosure of gifts play an important role in government. "The public has a right to know which individuals are attempting to influence public officials by providing them with meals entertainment and other gifts," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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