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L.A. city attorney candidates trade ethics charges

Supporters of Carmen Trutanich sue Mike Feuer, accusing him of improperly obtaining $300,000 in public funds. Feuer alleges that Trutanich improperly sent an email during a blackout period.

March 31, 2013|By Jean Merl and David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Feuer said he checked with a high-level Ethics Commission staffer who advised him that his financial arrangement with a campaign consultant was “a legitimate agreement that complied with the rules.”
Mike Feuer said he checked with a high-level Ethics Commission staffer… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

The candidates vying in the May 21 election to be Los Angeles' top lawyer are questioning each other's ethics in increasingly harsh ways, dueling complaints made to authorities last week showed.

Supporters of City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, widely considered the underdog in the runoff contest, filed a lawsuit against former lawmaker Mike Feuer, accusing him of improperly obtaining $300,000 in taxpayer funds by hiding the true cost of the campaign.

Feuer responded by lodging a pair of complaints with the city Ethics Commission, including one that alleged that Trutanich violated rules by sending an e-mail newsletter during a special campaign blackout period for incumbents.

Both candidates denied wrongdoing and ramped up their attacks. Trutanich said the issue raised in Feuer's ethics complaint "pales" in comparison to the issues alleged in the lawsuit, which focuses on a contract that allowed campaign consultant John Shallman to work extensively for Feuer throughout the primary campaign without receiving payment.

The Feuer campaign, in turn, issued statements from three former elected officials attesting to his honesty. "Mike Feuer is one of the most honest and ethical human beings I know," former City Controller Laura Chick said in one of the statements, all from Feuer endorsers.

Feuer led Trutanich 44% to 30% in the four-way March 5 primary. Backers of Feuer said the campaign finance lawsuit has no merit and was filed to shore up a "desperate" candidate. It was filed Wednesday by longtime Westside activist Laura Lake and announced by Fix The City, a nonprofit group headed by Trutanich supporters Mike Eveloff and James O'Sullivan.

Feuer said a consulting contract allowed him to pay Shallman Communications essentially nothing throughout the campaign but provide a $50,000 "win bonus" if he won outright in the primary or prevailed in the runoff. (Shallman told The Times several weeks earlier that the amount of the bonus would not be determined until after the election.)

That agreement was supposed to last the entire campaign. But after the primary — and after becoming the subject of two ethics complaints — Feuer reached a new agreement to give Shallman three $50,000 payments regardless of whether he wins. Feuer said he reworked the arrangement because of the high caliber of Shallman's work. "It is not a revision I needed to make," he added.

As he avoided making payments to Shallman during the primary race, Feuer kept his expenses below $1.26 million. That allowed him to obtain $300,000 in taxpayer matching funds from City Hall, which are provided only to candidates who keep a specified lid on spending.

Bradley Hertz, Lake's lawyer, argued that if other politicians followed Feuer's lead, any firm or vendor hired by a candidate could agree not to seek payment until after the campaign was over. That would render the city's rules for providing public financing of candidates and limiting the cost of campaigns meaningless, he said.

"If there is any significant value to Shallman's work, it would have put Feuer over the [spending] limit," said Hertz, whose firm specializes in political and election law. "And that is inconsistent with the whole pledge you take when you take public financing."

Hertz asserted in his lawsuit that another Shallman client, City Council candidate Gil Cedillo, paid the consultant more than $52,000 during the primary. While Feuer is running citywide, Cedillo is competing in a district that makes up one-fifteenth of the city's population. Hertz asserted that Shallman's work for Feuer represents a huge unreported campaign contribution.

Feuer said he checked with a high-level Ethics Commission staffer who advised him that his arrangement with Shallman was "a legitimate agreement that complied with the rules." He also dismissed the questions raised by Hertz about the larger payments made by Cedillo. "Consultants charge candidates different amounts all the time," Feuer said.

Feuer hit back Friday with new allegations, accusing Trutanich of using city resources for campaign purposes. Feuer spokesman Dave Jacobson, who works for Shallman, said the city attorney sent four of his weekly newsletters between Feb. 1 and March 15 even though office holders are not supposed to send "mass mailings" to more than 200 recipients when they are running for reelection.

Hours later, the Feuer campaign filed another complaint, suggesting that Trutanich's campaign had been illegally coordinating with an independent committee devoted to helping the city attorney win reelection.

William Carter, Trutanich's senior deputy, said the e-mail newsletters were proper because they were sent to inform employees, neighborhood council members and others affiliated with the city about office business. Trutanich campaign spokesman John Schwada called the accusation of collusion "a desperate attempt to distract" reporters from the lawsuit over the Shallman contract.

Trutanich said Friday that he had asked L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to look into the Shallman contract because his office must recuse itself in the matter.

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