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Role Reversal 

Since when do ethics commissioners grovel before those whom they police?

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

The last time I looked in, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission was functioning rather well as the city government’s traffic officer. Not its highway patrolman nor its robbery-homicide detective: It’s not there to handle wild chases or major felony cases. That’s what the D.A.’s Office and the FBI are there for — supposedly.

But the CEC, as it’s locally known, continues diligently to police the routine, you-couldn’t-quite-call-it-corruption misbehavior of elected officials and those who seek to influence them. Such as when a council candidate (usually an incumbent) collects too many contributions in amounts above the $500 legal limit. Or improperly uses special accounts available to "officeholders" to serve campaign purposes.

The CEC best functions as a sleaze-prevention program. When offenders get caught, their motivations are considered secondary. Like the traffic officer who writes your parking ticket, the Ethics Commission staff is interested only in the unlawfulness of your action, not why the action happened.

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I’ve never seen the organization accuse an elected official of willfully breaking the law. And a fair news report of CEC stipulations just about always includes the words "No admission of wrongdoing was made." The CEC’s official reticence on this point makes it surprisingly easier to get politicians to admit they’ve not done the right thing. Do note: This is not the same as saying no wrong was done. There is a kind of mutual mythology at work here, useful to both parties, stipulating that the irregularities could be accidental.

So why has a city ethics commissioner issued an apology to City Councilman Nate Holden, a confessed violator — and possibly the greatest transgressor on record regarding campaign donations?

In June, Councilman Holden signed a paper in which he agreed that the 48 unlawful actions of his campaign organization in the 1995 election merited a sanction of $27,500, the largest sanction to date. Now, less than a month later, Ethics Commissioner Paul Krekorian has apologized to Holden for the action. And even suggested that perhaps the fine should be rescinded.

I really have no idea why the commissioner would do that, and, at this writing, Commissioner Krekorian had not returned my calls seeking an explanation. In the absence of hard information, however, one’s at a loss to comprehend why Krekorian behaved as he did.

Krekorian’s initial problem on June 16, when he voted to sanction Holden, was that he seemingly succumbed to an awkward moment of public courage. And then this month, chickening out, he contrastingly suffered from what you might call "I Was a Big Man Yesterday" syndrome.

Holden objected, but there was something for the rest of us to like in Krekorian’s original remarks, where he implied, at the CEC’s June 16 meeting, that someone with a campaign-error track record as negatively noteworthy as Holden’s might have actually done something wrong. After the Holden penalty agreement was confirmed by panel vote, Krekorian referred to it as documenting "a repeated pattern of behavior by a public official [that was] breathtaking in scope."

In later discussion that day, without directly referring to Holden, Krekorian suggested that "in a situation where there is evidence of willfulness, an increased fine" might be appropriate. He never said that Holden ought to pay such a fine. Or that the facts in Holden’s case represented such "a situation."

I quote these exact words from a recording of the hearing because of what happened next. At a press conference the following day, Holden accused Krekorian of having said what he did not — that Holden had consciously broken the law.

I am told that the two, at a later date, held an impromptu debate on KCRW radio, in which stronger language was used. I didn’t hear it. But the fact is, Holden, on June 17, accused Commissioner Krekorian of saying something during an official hearing that Krekorian didn’t really say.

Far more amazing is the fact that, three weeks later, Krekorian apologized for saying what he had not said. Having reviewed the stipulation record, the lawyer said, in a prepared statement during the CEC’s July 8 hearing, "I found no indication . . . that Councilman Holden had any willful intent to violate the law." Krekorian’s abject attestation added, "If any statement I made could have been interpreted otherwise, they [sic] were inappropriate and wrong."

Holden, who’d been in attendance throughout the CEC proceedings that day, was then invited to take the microphone to comment. He began with nearly 30 seconds of wordless, heavy-breathing gloat, punctuated by a soft "huh." Then Holden said, "You accused me of committing a felony . . . I was going to come after you." He followed with more gloating.

You couldn’t help but wonder whether Holden had threatened to sue Krekorian for defamation if the latter didn’t cave in public. Regardless of what happened offstage, it was a sorry sight to see the commission prostrated before the most severely reprimanded official it had ever dealt with.

Krekorian’s flaccid statement was bad enough in its suggestion that Holden bore no responsibility for the dozens of violations that characterized his 1995 campaign. Yet there was worse to come. The timorous Krekorian then suggested that the commission reopen the entire matter with the possibility of exonerating Holden.

Aghast, fellow Commissioner Miriam Krinsky objected, "It’s an appropriate stipulation and . . . a fair one." She noted that not only had Holden signed off on the fines, but he himself had not suggested that they be rescinded. The notion of reversing the fine emerged only from Krekorian’s groveling.

But in the face of Holden’s triumph, no other commissioners could muster the courage Krekorian so obviously lacked. Which is to say that none of them undid, in Holden’s presence, the damage caused by Krekorian’s obeisance to the wiliest scoundrel currently on the City Council. About the only lucky break the commission got that day was the near-total absence of press: Only the little downtown daily Metropolitan News Enterprise recorded the instant of shame.

 

Krekorian’s belly-crawl came at an awkward point in the commission’s eight-year history. For one thing, commission membership — which originally consisted of appointees of diverse backgrounds and careers — may soon consist entirely of white career attorneys, several of whom are closely connected to the L.A. County Bar. Some observers suggest that this current commission is more inclined toward legalistic niggles than direct action.

Further, there was already a shadow hanging over that Holden stipulation: Although it had been in process for many months, the world only found out about the councilman’s fund-raising peccadilloes two days after the June 8 runoff election. That election, you’ll recall, left incumbent Holden a hair’s-breadth winner over challenger Madison Shockley. Had the campaign-violation information been released just three days earlier, it’s easy to imagine Holden as a hair’s-breadth loser.

Commission staff, not speaking for attribution, blame the delay on Holden’s reluctance to sign the penalty agreement. Holden has claimed he only agreed to sign in fear that the stipulation otherwise "would have been leaked" before the election. But overall, it looks as though Holden, by foot-dragging, prevented the Ethics Commission’s bad news about his 1995 campaign practices from forestalling his 1999 electoral triumph. If his council colleagues get the idea that the release of such crucial information can be so readily manipulated, it’ll be a bad day for clean elections in L.A.

Then there’s a third factor that could influence the commission’s future: Councilman Joel Wachs’ angry resignation as council president pro tem last month. Wachs’ move had nothing to do with the Ethics Commission, and, in fact, his departure was a morally defensible and well-timed political jab at fellow council members for opposing the new city charter. Wachs and other charter supporters carried the day in the June city elections. But his action had an unintended side effect. The pro tem is entitled to appoint a commissioner: Wachs’ pick was former Police Commission stalwart Art Mattox — who looked to be a reasonably tough CEC member.

But City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter now holds the pro tem spot and may well elect to appoint her own commissioner in lieu of Mattox. Galanter has not been much of a friend to the CEC. In fact, she wrote the 1990 ballot argument against the ethics initiative that established it; so it’s quite imaginable that she might pick someone less hard-nosed about official irregularities than Mattox.

Maybe even someone like Paul Krekorian.

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