By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Recalling the case, Burke said that an employee acted on his own accord to arrange for the excess contributions without his knowledge. Over the course of two separate interviews for this story, Burke consistently maintained that he has never closely monitored his small company’s finances, leaving that instead to others. “For 23 years I have never written a check,” he said. “I’m okay at making money. I’m horrible at keeping it and really horrible at keeping track of it.”
Ed Guthman who served on the ethics panel at the time, said money laundering is a common method of circumventing campaign-finance restrictions. “Whenever it’s done, it’s trying to get around the law,” Guthman said. “That speaks for itself.”
Records show that council members who received money introduced measures to subsidize Los Angeles Marathon Inc. throughout the 1990s. After it became evident in 1991 that the marathon was not fully reimbursing the city, Councilmen Nate Holden and Mark Ridley-Thomas successfully sponsored a motion for the city to hang 28 free promotional banners for Burke along the marathon route. The next year, on a motion by Holden and Ridley-Thomas, the council approved distributing marathon entry forms to all of the city’s 48,000 employees with their paychecks. In 1996, Councilman Hal Bernson succeeded in increasing the number of free banners installed to 1,000, at a cost of $46,000 to the city. Fees were waived for placement of stages and other items through the years.
On a motion by Holden backed by Bernson and Ridley-Thomas, the council agreed to spend part of a $1 million state grant intended to pick up litter and recycle beverage containers at the zoo toward cleanup after the marathon. Then in 2001 — a full four years before the marathon contract was set to expire — Bernson and Holden successfully moved to extend Burke’s contract through 2011 for a license fee of $120,000 a year. “I always thought it was a good thing for the city, and it gave the city some stature,” Bernson said. He said the city probably gains more in sales tax than it spends on the marathon.
“I don’t think I’ve given Hal Bernson more than $1,000 or $1,500,” said Burke. “He’s a friend of mine.” Records show Bernson received $3,500 in excess contributions from the marathon. ‰
Not all members of the council supported the subsidies sponsored by Bernson and others for the marathon, including Joel Wachs. “It was something Joel looked at and on its face was wrong,” recalled Greg Nelson, an aide to Wachs at the time and now director of the city’s neighborhood-empowerment program. “The marathon is a moneymaker, and how much do we need to be using public resources to subsidize it?”
Reflecting on the renewal of the marathon’s contract while he served on the council, Feuer said, “I couldn’t identify a reason why a contract already in effect should be sweetened.”
Such skeptics were in the minority. The council continued waiving fees for Burke. A 2003 report by the city’s chief legislative analyst showed that ongoing fee waivers — requested by City Councilman Greig Smith — made the marathon the only citywide event to receive such waivers. Most are granted for events occurring in distinct sections of the city, such as the Academy Awards or block parties.
In light of the impending budget crunch, the council is examining how to restrict event-fee waivers. “We’re looking at a $200 million hit to revenues,” said Mitch Englander, chief of staff to Smith, who said that the waiver practice would be tightened up. “Everything will be subject to it.”
In 1997, Burke took over as chairman of the AQMD board and tried to reclaim his role as a fighter for environmental justice, with a 10-point program. Recalling a recent visit to his boyhood home of Zanesville, Ohio, and how a stream where he once fished was now polluted, he pledged to seek environmental justice.
Activists considered it a breakthrough. The agency vowed to focus on cleaning up pollution problems in poor and working-class neighborhoods surrounded by freeways, grungy industries and bustling warehouses. Under the plan, Burke and the board reversed itself on toxic air pollution, tightening standards for businesses across the area. The agency also cracked down on diesel pollution by adopting a series of rules to require the region’s cities and schools to begin purchasing natural gas instead of diesel trucks and buses. Truck and bus engine makers are challenging the rules in the U.S. Supreme Court.
In introducing his environmental-justice strategy, Burke said, “The goal is not to spread the burden of health risks equally across our region but to reduce the burden for all.”
But the commitment did not last long. Two months later, the board adopted a separate clean-air blueprint considered weak by many, maintaining that it had done virtually all it could to clean up stationary businesses in Southern California, a view reiterated by Burke in an interview for this article. He maintained that most of the cleanup work is now up to the state and federal governments, which must further regulate motor vehicles and other mobile sources.
“That was the time of the infamous 1997 air plan and we filed suit,” recalled Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney Gail Ruderman-Feuer. Two years later, the air district settled the lawsuit and agreed to include new and tighter pollution-control measures on businesses in its cleanup plan.