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Read more in this exclusive update: "Antonio Villaraigosa free tickets are worth $50,000 to $100,000. Full list here of 80 free events; corruption laws ignored."
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently attended Cirque du Soleil and other events, and he will write up those tickets on his city's "Form 700." Doing so will ensure that Newsom doesn't run afoul of ethics laws designed to reassure the public that politicians are not bought by gift-bearing corporations and rich patrons.
Tony Winnicker, Newsom's communications director, explains, "There's almost never a time when the mayor appears in public when he's not in some way carrying out an official duty, so in many respects he's never really off duty as mayor." But the rules are so strict, Winnicker says, "To be candid, we probably overreport."
When several elected officials from San Diego City Hall attended that city's two Super Bowls, despite the major civic aspects to these huge events, each politician bought his own ticket. Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of San Diego's Ethics Commission, says simply: "They pay for their tickets."
When Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn attended the Oscars in 2003, he paid $400 of the $500 price, getting a $100 discount he duly reported as a gift. When he was thinking of attending the Grammy Awards in 2004, he asked the City Ethics Commission if it was okay for him to buy the costly tickets, using his "officeholder" account — money he raised from supporters. It wasn't, and he didn't.
In this context, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's behavior occupies a unique, new spot in the annals of political ethics and freebies in California.
Villaraigosa has very quietly accepted — and even angled for — free tickets to as many as 80 pricey events, then failed to report all but one of them, as well as failed to keep records of his actions or the sources of this largesse.
It is not known who gave him the tickets, or the precise number of these events Villaraigosa actually attended, although it is known that he frequently did show up. The 80 events, which appear on the mayor's private official schedule, were recently sent by Villaraigosa to the Ethics Commission amid an outcry from the public over his freebies. The Weekly obtained a copy of the list. Click here to see the Weekly's exclusive ticket-price values of Mayor Villaraigosa's 80 freebies.
According to L.A. Weekly's calculations, Villaraigosa has taken tickets worth $50,000, and perhaps as much as $100,000 — a staggering amount for an American politician at any level, and more than he could cover with his $223,000 salary and extensive family obligations.
The top-end value of those tickets is impossible to determine because, as the mayor's office admitted in a Los Angeles Times article June 12 by Phil Willon, Villaraigosa failed to keep track of his free tickets for the past five years. If true, there is no way to know whether he took single tickets or frequently received multiple tickets to also accommodate dates and family members.
If he did in fact take two or three tickets to events, the value could rise substantially, perhaps reaching or topping $100,000.
Without any records, the public can't know how many tickets he took to events or what he was given in addition to the seating — such as free valet parking, expensive liquor and meals, all of which can add up to the price of a ticket. Those also must be reported under ethics laws.
Derek Cressman, regional director for the Western states at Common Cause, says Villaraigosa has usurped voters by deciding for himself what needs to be preserved and disclosed. "If it's disclosed to voters, and if voters agree with him, then everything's fine," Cressman says. "But if it's not disclosed, [voters] don't have the opportunity to make that judgment."
By comparison, during the 18 months between January 2008 and June 2009, the 120 members of the California Legislature combined — no slouches when it comes to mining special-interest groups and rich individuals for freebies — reported taking in $256,789 in gifts from groups that employ lobbyists.
The mayor's $50,000 to $100,000-plus in freebies scooped up over five years is roughly the same amount as all 40 members of the California Senate accepted over an 18-month period.
The public first heard about Villaraigosa's behavior during a FOX 11 exposé by reporter John Schwada, who got wind of the mayor's free courtside seats at Lakers games. Team officials tell the Weekly those tickets are worth $2,100 to $4,200 each and were not provided by the team.
Schwada's report was quickly followed by Times reporter Willon's articles, revealing that Villaraigosa had attended dozens of other freebie cultural and sporting events.
Besides at least $21,000 in free Academy Awards seats, already reported, the Weekly has determined the going rate for several of those other tickets. He is known to have accepted two tickets to each of four Emmy Awards, worth as much as $10,000 in total.
Assuming the mayor took just one ticket to each of the other events, and did not get extra tickets, he received about $12,000 in courtside Lakers seats, and tickets to 11 Dodger games worth up to $5,500.
Those Dodger seats could present an additional ethics problem because the team is involved in a project with Metro, where Villaraigosa is a vice chairman. Because of past scandals, Metro has strict rules against board members taking gifts from entities that have dealings with Metro.