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Villaraigosa also got a ticket worth at least $1,250 to attend Plácido Domingo's 40th anniversary show at the Los Angeles Opera, and wangled a ticket to the American Idol finale, the scalper price of which — tickets were not publicly sold — hit $5,000. He took many tickets of lesser value, including one to a Mary J. Blige concert at as much as $90 and a Smokey Robinson concert at the Greek Theatre, which cost up to $80. (For a complete list of the mayor's tickets, see the Weekly's news blog, The Informer, at laweekly.com.)
Villaraigosa and his legal advisers are defending the freebies by arguing that the mayor is exempt from gift limitations, and has acted within his rights, because he attended events to conduct "official business."
If that view prevails before the City Ethics Commission, Villaraigosa could upend one of the key anticorruption laws on the books in L.A. The state and city prohibit elected officials from taking more than $420 in gifts annually from any single source. In L.A., politicians are also banned from taking more than $100 in gifts annually from anyone who does business with the city.
Villaraigosa's five-year ticket spree is being closely watched by other elected officials because of the proactive method he used to gain free entry to at least some of the events. For example, he got great seats to a Beyoncé concert by cranking out a "proclamation" at the 11th hour, which praised the singer for her good citizenship.
A dozen political advisers and lawyers contacted by the Weekly declined to comment, most of them unwilling to publicly criticize a sitting politician. But legal counsel to one national elected official called Villaraigosa's seeking out of events at which to present a scroll or briefly speak at a microphone "pretty clever." He got into a 2008 Lakers Playoff game, for example, by arranging to hold a press conference on-site at which he said the 2011 All-Star game was coming to L.A.
Critics say that if the City Ethics Commission merely slaps Villaraigosa's wrist, politicians up and down California will copy him, printing up scrolls and devising on-site "press conferences" to claim that they, too, are conducting "official" or "ceremonial" duties.
Cressman, of Common Cause, calls the mayor's behavior shameful. He says that if the ethics commission finds no wrongdoing, "it's a terrible precedent. It's opening a new loophole. I can't recall any state officials using this 'ceremonial' function as an excuse for not reporting" gifts.
But the commission is no longer Villaraigosa's only concern. The L.A. District Attorney's Office said this week it will review the commission's findings for possible illegalities.
Although mayoral aides have repeatedly insisted that Villaraigosa did not break city or state anticorruption laws, one emerging legal argument from the mayor's team appears somewhat unusual.
Attorney Walter Moore, who has filed an ethics complaint against Villaraigosa over the freebies, says he is being told by people close to the issue that the mayor's attorneys are privately citing the opinion issued to Hahn in 2004 by the City Ethics Commission concerning whether Hahn could spend funds he raised to buy tickets to the Grammys. In the detailed response to Hahn, the commission described the mayor as the city's "business ambassador and chief marketer."
Moore believes Villaraigosa is trying to parlay that language to argue after the fact that if he conducts any duties at events, he can legally obtain scads of free tickets and not report them. "I gather that's the argument," says Moore, who calls it "woefully misplaced."
He scoffs, "If you read the Municipal Code, it does not contain a calligraphy defense" — referring to Villaraigosa's practice of churning out fancy scrolls to use as entry.
The mayor's office did not respond to several requests made by the Weekly, seeking comment.
One thing is certain: The mayor can't claim ignorance of the rules. As a former California Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa became intimately familiar with the gift laws, including requirements that elected officials must ask for a legal ruling from the Fair Political Practices Commission — or in this case, the City Ethics Commission — before trying anything questionable.
In fact, in 1999, Villaraigosa authored Assembly Bill 1630 to weaken rules that require politicians to find out from the FPPC the legality of their actions before committing them. Villaraigosa's bill died in committee because the FPPC fought it. The existing law usually requires a politician to obtain a written opinion two to three weeks in advance of the questionable action. Villaraigosa's bill would have let politicians get an oral opinion five days in advance.
Asked about Villaraigosa's five years of undisclosed free tickets, FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter says, "There is no record of the mayor having asked for advice on this issue."
As the Weekly has previously reported, Villaraigosa has been light on policy and heavy on self-promotion as mayor. He employs a personal staff of 173 — Hahn had 121, Riordan 114 — some of whom focus on getting his face on the nightly news.
The Weekly's September 2008 cover story, "The All About Me Mayor," illustrated how Villaraigosa devotes his touted "16-hour workdays" almost entirely to self-promotional activities, ceremonial events, awards, luncheons, banquets, photo ops and media interviews — including a sizable chunk of "gap time" used to drive around to attend the activities.