By Hillel Aron
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Deputy District Attorney Juliet Schmidt asked if Valdez mentioned a commitment that O’Donnell made to raise a certain amount of money for Hahn. Latinovic said she did. “She just said that, uhm, a pledge was made for the Hahn campaign,” Latinovic said. “And then, ‘You’ll get reimbursed.’”
Latinovic’s 74-year-old mother, who lives with her daughter in Simi Valley and like her daughter cannot vote in Los Angeles city elections, also gave the top $1,000 donation and was reimbursed.
“I said, ‘I get the money back?’” she recalled asking her daughter, who assured her she would.
Escobar, the Latinovics and several others testified under a grant of immunity. But prosecutors are still going after them, saying they had plenty of documentary evidence before the testimony that they participated in an illegal money laundering scheme.
The district attorney has named seven people in its complaint, but together with the Ethics Commission it claims that 23 people donated money to Hahn’s mayoral campaign and were reimbursed by O’Donnell. Many of their names also appear in Federal Elections Commission records as donors to Edwards.
The arraignment date has been put off repeatedly, as Cooley’s office, the Ethics Commission and the FPPC coordinate their cases, and as prosecutors play hardball with O’Donnell office workers.
It is not illegal to donate money to political candidates, as long as the donor stays within the limits. Auditing campaign donations to check for excess contributions is a necessary precursor to probing political money laundering, which is itself a necessary prelude to determine whether politicians are selling off city contracts in exchange for campaign donations.
It also is not illegal for contractors (for now) to give money to city candidates. Part of doing business with the city, after all, is being involved in city affairs, so if you want a contract, you show up at a fund-raiser, or maybe throw one yourself. It’s a chance to schmooze. A chance to be sure you are called when issues come up. After all, who else but someone with a direct stake would bother giving money to a city candidate?
PROVING PIERCE O’DONNELL USED his own money to break contribution limits would be a coup, and in fact it could get him sent away for 13 years. But prosecutors usually let administrative laws do their work, in the form of fines. The big prize here is answering the questions: What did O’Donnell hope to get? What did Hahn offer, or imply, as a reward? If anything?
If Cooley’s office can establish a link in the natural-gas case, it would finally, for the first time, show that there is a corrupt pay-to-play culture at City Hall. But the possibility remains that O’Donnell, a flamboyant figure, a poet, an author, a former newspaper publisher, a onetime congressional candidate, and one of the top-ranked trial lawyers in the nation, laundered campaign money only because he wanted to be seen like an even bigger cheese. Cooley’s people have their work cut out for them.
Hahn campaign spokeswoman Julie Wong, meanwhile, denied any link between the gas litigation and O’Donnell fund-raising. “The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other,” she said.
She also noted that the gas suit, whoever the lawyers were, helped the city recover $20 million.