Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine stepped out before his colleagues… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
When the Los Angeles City Council took up a lucrative airport contract earlier this week, Councilman Dennis Zine quietly stepped out of the room, saying he was doing so out of an "abundance of caution."
The reason for his recusal? A girlfriend of Zine's was a lobbyist for a company challenging the winning bid.
Socializing between elected officials and lobbyists is nothing new at City Hall; Councilwoman Janice Hahn takes vacations with one. But while Zine took pains to publicly distance himself on the airport contract, he had not been nearly as circumspect when dealing with other votes on clients of Veronica Becerra, a lobbyist and land-use consultant.
Over the last two years, he has taken part in at least three votes involving companies that she or her firm, Rabuild Commercial, worked for, according to city records.
In July 2009, Zine voted with his colleagues to approve a proposed 43-story tower on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles, one that needed a change in zoning and a break from the city's parking rules that would have required 72 more spaces. That developer had retained Becerra as its representative.
Last March, Zine voted for a six-story condominium proposed by businessman Charlie Woo, another Becerra client. That 320-unit project called for the closure of a city street.
And on Dec. 15, Zine voted to support a beer and wine permit in his San Fernando Valley district for a company that had retained Becerra. Zine made the motion to approve the application even though the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council had opposed alcohol sales at that location several months earlier.
Before each vote, Becerra's name was included in the project file prepared by the city clerk for council members and the public. Nevertheless, Zine told The Times that he did not know who Becerra represented and stressed that there was no conflict of interest stemming from the intersection of their relationship and her advocacy at City Hall.
Zine would not reveal how long he has been dating Becerra or say whether they were romantically involved during those votes. "It's a personal relationship," he said repeatedly.
At the Dec. 17 council meeting, however, Zine said he wanted "transparency for all" when he grilled airport officials on their reasons for not giving a $271-million contract to Becerra client Tutor Perini Corp.
Until a marriage or domestic partnership agreement exists, state conflict-of-interest law does not apply to those who are romantically involved with an elected official, said Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission. The same is true of city ethics laws.
When the airport contract initially came before the council, Zine urged his colleagues to delay a decision so that they could determine whether Tutor Perini should have been awarded the lucrative deal.
However, after news reports on the LAX contracting debate linked Zine to Becerra, the councilman consulted with City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. He subsequently announced that he would recuse himself from voting on the issue.
Zine said he saw no conflict but was stepping back to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Still, one government watcher said Zine should disclose the length of his relationship with Becerra.
"The purpose of understanding the timing of the relationship is to understand if the relationship overlaps with his actions on the City Council that affect her," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. "This is a relationship that he should have disclosed early on and made it clear that there was a potential for a conflict of interest."
In 2007, for example, Zine voted for a zoning change for a Becerra client who had proposed a 20-unit condominium building on La Brea Avenue just south of Melrose, according to city clerk records. Whether that vote occurred while the two were dating is unclear.
Becerra did not respond to requests for an interview Friday but previously told The Times that her relationship with Zine was not a "big deal" — and that Zine dates "a lot of women" at City Hall. Zine declined to say who else, if anyone, he might be dating.
In an e-mail, Zine spokeswoman Jessica Tarman said Becerra never lobbied Zine on the beer and wine sales at a minimart at 7218 Canoga Ave. He voted for that proposal because he felt it would "spark business" in a shopping center with vacant storefronts, Tarman wrote.
The Canoga Park Neighborhood Council took a different stance last year, voting to oppose the request, said Freddy Carrillo, former president of that panel. "The findings were that there was just an overconcentration in the area of beer and wine sales," he said.
Zine said he sees no conflict with Becerra because she frequently is paid to represent clients as an expediter — someone who helps a private company navigate the city bureaucracy but does not necessarily call on an elected official as part of the job.
Indeed, Planning Department records show that Becerra has had other City Hall clients, not all of whom needed approvals from the council. Agendas, notices and other department documents show that she represented a company seeking to install large recycling containers on Van Nuys Boulevard; a landlord seeking a beer and wine permit near skid row; and a charter school in Glassell Park.
Zine also missed a 2009 vote on a Becerra client who secured a $6.4-million city loan to construct a 98-unit affordable housing project in Reseda.
That project is also in Zine's district.