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The Let-It-Slide Commission 

L.A.’s watchdogs pander rather than police

Thursday, Nov 17 2005
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The message that Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss apparently hoped would come out of last week’s Ethics Commission meeting is that he took on the blind, unthinking monster that is government regulation and won. Weiss himself wasn’t talking, so he had his lawyer state his case to the press. “I think our position was entirely vindicated,” said election law specialist Ron Turovsky of Democratic powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. This particular vindication came in the form of a $4,800 fine against Weiss for breaking the city law requiring that every one of those annoying campaign mailers sent to voters also be sent to the Ethics Commission, so that opponents and anyone else who cares to follow these things will know just what a candidate is saying. Weiss didn’t do that for any of his mailers in the hard-fought 2001 campaign in which he beat former state senator and assemblyman Tom Hayden — by a paltry 369 votes, by the way, in a district of a quarter-million residents.And if we’re not careful, Weiss’ victory could end up being exactly the message that comes out of that commission decision, because while $4,800 is no small chunk of change, it is considerably smaller than the $17,000 the commission’s staff thought Weiss ought to pay for breaking the law ($500 per violation), not to mention the $25,000 they went after when Weiss refused to settle in the first place.The real message that should come out of the hearing is quite different, and quite depressing: the City Ethics Commission has nearly completed its transition from the gem of local campaign-finance regulatory agencies to a panel of political appointees beholden to the elected officials who appointed them and the people who make their living guiding and defending the politicians.That was certainly the position of Hayden, whom two commission members blurted was the rightful occupant of the council seat that Weiss now holds (but the sentiment seemed to be, “too bad”).“It’s the pattern in American history for reforms to be absorbed into the system they’re trying to reform,” a philosophical Hayden said later, adding, bitterly, that he was not bitter.So why bother?“I want the historical record to be clarified, and I want the case to somehow be a lesson to the progressives in L.A.,” he said. “The Ethics Commission has lost its bearings.”Keep in mind that when we’re talking about the Ethics Commission, we’re really talking about two different things. There’s the commission itself — the five-member body appointed by city politicians to make rulings on the practices of those same politicians (only four were there for Weiss’ matter last week). Those are the folks we ought to be concerned about. But we’re also talking about the commission’s staff — Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham and the people she hires and supervises to monitor campaign practices, run the matching funds program, track lobbyists, and prosecute ethics violations. Those are the folks who people who run for office, and those who make their living running campaigns, are concerned about.The arguments floated by several of the commissioners in the Weiss matter were breathtaking. Robert Saltzman, the associate dean of USC’s law school and the newest panelist, just appointed by Weiss’ close political ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said that in thinking the matter over he naturally put himself in Weiss’ shoes. Wait. He what? Since when is the commission supposed to be putting itself in the shoes of the elected official? Who, then, puts himself or herself in the shoes of the public, which is supposed to be protected by the campaign laws?Saltzman and commission President Gil Garcetti both made a point of dismissing the importance of having the mailers on file — the very law they are supposedly enforcing. If it’s mailed, they argued, it’s out there, and everybody knows, so what’s the big deal? As if they have never heard of carefully targeted mailers sporting outrageous statements in the frantic closing days of a tight race. Saltzman’s special beef was that it turned out later that “reporters” knew to get copies of any mailers from Weiss’ consultant, Larry Levine, and that ought to be enough (too bad for you members of the public who’ve never heard of Levine and don’t have him on your speed-dial; and too bad, come to think of it, about the law — remember that? — that requires you to simply send a copy of everything to the commission for viewing).Garcetti threw in that no evidence was presented that anyone ever goes to the commission office to look at the mailers. This one bugged me especially, having just spent two hours at the commission office going over the mail in the recent City Council race. But Garcetti (a former candidate, remember, successful and otherwise, for district attorney) apparently wanted some proof that people go up to the ethics office and check those things out. As if it’s not already intimidating enough just to get into City Hall, have your driver’s license recorded, tell an armed guard where you’re going, and wear a scarlet-letter-type sticker to warn the club that there’s an Outsider in their midst. Now you want the public to register when they look at the documents the commission holds for public view?At least former L.A. Times reporter and editor Bill Boyarsky was there on the commission, cluing in his colleagues that it’s hard to get this stuff from campaigns. Boyarsky was the one dissenting voice in the 3-1 vote.But Sean Treglia wasn’t comfortable imposing such a fine without evidence that Weiss has done the same thing over the course of many elections. Note to Mr. Treglia: That was Weiss’ first election, and now you pretty much let him skate. He just had his second election this year, and that’s it. Term limits. He won’t be running for the City Council ever again. How many elections did you want?Then there’s the argument that, gosh, it wasn’t Weiss’ fault, it was Levine’s fault, and everyone admits it was a clerical oversight, so why saddle Weiss with it? To which there is this obvious rejoinder — if the next candidate sees that the Ethics Commission takes this kind of violation seriously, he or she will make damn sure to hire a campaign consultant who makes filing and public disclosure a high priority.Oh, but wait — the Ethics Commission just proved that it does not take this kind of thing seriously, by substantially lowering Weiss’ fine. The commission had, until last week, a long track record of imposing $500 per-mailer fines for this mail violation, but now has taken another road.Just last month, the commission imposed a fine of $500 per mail violation against Carl Washington. The difference between Washington and Weiss is that — well, let me think. Weiss is an officeholder, and will raise this money from his donors, and won’t end up paying a penny of it himself. Washington was much more of a bad boy because he had the temerity to lose his election, and will have to pay the fine out of his own pocket. The lesson is, if you’re going to run for office, you’d better win. Do everything you can. Send out nasty mailers. Don’t file them with the Ethics Commiss — wait. How did we get here? The commission itself at least had enough shame to ask itself that question last week. Soak the losing African-American candidate, but go easy on the nice successful white attorney from the Westside? That just looked too gruesome, so they went back and lowered Washington’s fine as well. But you have to wonder — what if it were Nate Holden sitting in Weiss’ seat? What if it were Nick Pacheco? Would they still gut the penalty? Even before Weiss’ matter came up, it was pretty clear the commissioners identify not with the public but with the campaign industry. The Weiss hearing was first up, but, Stop! There are elected officials in the house! Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti and Controller Laura Chick were there to talk about, ironically, “clean money,” the latest stab at getting money out of politics, so naturally we have to take them first because .?.?. well, just because.So there was Councilman Eric Garcetti, making his presentation to the commission president (“Hi, Dad!”). Okay, fine. The elected officials have their say and run along. Now can we get on with the hearing? Yes — except that a few minutes into it, here comes Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who didn’t make it in with the rest of his colleagues, but still has to go on record saying the exact same thing about campaign money. So Garcetti (the father) stops the Weiss hearing in deference to Rosendahl. Keep in mind that there were several people at the meeting, including Susan Lerner, leader of the statewide Clean Money campaign, waiting to address the commission. But she can just cool her heels. Lerner isn’t an elected official, and these commissioners, whose job is in part to regulate the conduct of elected officials on behalf of the public, only change their schedule for elected officials. Not for the public.By the way, they never did get to Lerner. Garcetti, the father, had an appointment and had to go. Too bad, Susan. See you next month.There’s a pretty basic test of the commission’s orientation toward, or against, enforcing the law, and it’s not yet clear if Pelham and her staff will pass it. Garcetti, the father, set up that test a couple years ago when he violated the most basic conflict-of-interest law applying to ethics commissioners and donated $500 to his son’s campaign. Gil Garcetti should not be on the Ethics Commission. His staff has the duty to make sure he goes. Or at least to slap him with a penalty so high it will make it clear to any member of the panel that the laws they are meant to enforce are not mere guidelines that can be softened whenever enforcement becomes inconvenient. But the weeks are ticking by, and Garcetti is still running the show.

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