The Ethics Dilemma 

Will Gil Garcetti usher in a new era of campaign lenience?

Thursday, May 6 2004
Photo by Ted Soqui

In early 2002, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission slapped City Council President Alex Padilla with a record-setting $79,000 fine for breaking his promise to honor campaign spending limits. A few months later, when it was Padilla’s turn to appoint someone to the five-member panel, he called up former District Attorney Gil Garcetti.

“He said, ‘We need someone who’s had a different experience and background,’” Garcetti recounted recently at a commission retreat. “‘You’ve actually run for office. And you’ve prosecuted election cases. And I think you bring something different to the table.’”

Padilla was right. Never before has a member of the panel that guards against City Hall corruption and cronyism been so tightly connected with the very people he is supposed to regulate.

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Amid new turmoil and soul-searching at the Ethics Commission, Garcetti, now the commission president, brings unprecedented insider status and a track record of City Hall alliances and enmities to a panel that historically has prized and carefully guarded its charter-mandated independence. The people whose campaign and office treasuries he is supposed to scrutinize include his own son, Councilman Eric Garcetti, and a man with whom he had a very bitter public spat, former police chief (and likely mayoral candidate) Bernard C. Parks. City Hall contractors, lobbyists and fund-raisers, always at the center of commission debates over improper influence in government, contributed thousands of dollars to his three campaigns. Mayor Jim Hahn, as city attorney, once partnered with him to block legislation that would have permitted the commission to have the full powers intended by Los Angeles voters.

Now, Garcetti is trying to get the ethics staff to drop enforcement actions against candidates with small campaign violations and focus instead on bigger political crimes. It is a policy shift that could directly benefit his son.

The possibility is far from academic. Last month the commission’s audit staff found that Eric Garcetti improperly used his office’s political account and failed to provide the commission with copies of campaign mailers. No enforcement action has yet been taken.

Also in April, in the midst of a sweeping review of the commission’s purpose and power — and amid grand-jury probes into contract corruption allegations that focus on Hahn’s deputies and appointees — Garcetti stunned some on his staff when he told Hahn that the panel would look to the mayor for leadership on ethics-reform issues like regulating independent campaign expenditures.

“We would eagerly accept your leadership on this issue and any other issue involving the Ethics Commission,” Garcetti told the mayor.

It was an astonishing statement from the commission’s leader to a mayor who, a year earlier, scuttled carefully drafted Ethics Commission reforms that dealt with independent spending.

Garcetti’s statements, background, bluster and mere presence on the panel are sending shivers down the spines of many who consider themselves part of the “reform community.” At commission meetings, he — and, increasingly, his colleagues — challenges Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham and her staff as they try to explain to the five panelists the basic structure of the Ethics Commission as set forth in the city charter and state law: The staff investigates and prosecutes. The commissioners are judge and jury, and have no more business participating in probes than a judge does when presiding over a trial.

Tension between the staff and the commissioners is increasingly obvious. Meanwhile, enforcement matters have stalled as the commission delays ruling on settlements, like one brought to the panel in March for minor overexpenditures in Mike Feuer’s 2001 city-attorney campaign. Enforcement Director Deena Ghaly implied last month that former candidates and contributors accused of breaching campaign laws are holding off on settling while they wait to see whether Garcetti will lead the panel into a new era of lenience.

Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies warned the commission at a recent session that some agencies, like the Federal Elections Commission, eventually become co-opted by partisan politics. “And my concern is you have to be very careful to maintain your independence from the regulated community,” Stern said. “The regulated community does not want to have strict enforcement. They want to have less enforcement.”

Garcetti and his commission colleagues insist that their critiquing of the commission’s status quo is not aimed at weakening the panel’s enforcement power. Quite the opposite.

“I look at the commission’s work and I have to ask, Are there more significant issues and cases than those we are dealing with?” Garcetti said.

As District Attorney Steve Cooley — who ousted Garcetti from office four years ago — leads high-profile probes of government corruption in city contracting at the airport, the harbor and elsewhere, Garcetti and his four colleagues find themselves wondering where they and their staff fit in when the headlines hit. If they are asked at cocktail parties about the inside story on all the corruption talk in L.A., they must answer, if they’re honest about it, “I don’t know.”

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