Clearing the Air

L.A. Marathon founder William A. Burke, whose pro-industry actions as a member of two air-quality boards have raised questions about whether he can separate his own interests from those of the public, has resigned from the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

Sources say that Burke announced his resignation in a tersely worded letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that he did not share with fellow members and executive staff members of the state air board. "Nobody knew," said one air-board staff member, as word began filtering out Monday about the June 30 letter. "He did not even let the board know, not even as a courtesy."

Burke, a powerful political fund-raiser and president of the L.A. Marathon, remains chairman of the South Coast AQMD board — the region’s local smog-control agency. He has been a board member since then–Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown appointed him in 1993.

Burke said he resigned from the Air Resources Board to devote more time to the California Coastal Commission, where he serves as vice chair. "After conferring with my colleagues, several of them asked me to run for chair," he said. He also said he plans to spend more time working on AQMD issues.

His departure left no love lost at CARB’s Sacramento headquarters, where staff members were said to be "celebrating." Colleagues have been skeptical of Burke’s credibility, said one staff member who pointed to revelations about Burke’s record contained in a L.A. Weekly story, "Lord of the Race," from the on March 5-11, 2004, issue. "Everybody was quietly reading it and chuckling over it."

Another source close to the state air board said Burke’s relations with fellow board members and staff had become increasingly strained in recent months.

In the March story, Burke dismissed any suggestion that he should not serve on the air-quality boards because of his economic interests with generators of pollution — ranging from the city of Los Angeles, which waives fees for the marathon, to the automakers, airlines and energy companies, which sponsor the race. "I don’t think there’s a conflict," he insisted. "What you’re really saying is I shouldn’t serve."

Burke backed a proposal developed by General Motors Corp. — ultimately turned down by his fellow CARB board members — to allow automakers to buy their way out of the state’s zero-emissions vehicle standard. GM had been a tentative sponsor of the first marathon before backing out.

While unusually cool weather has put a damper on air pollution this summer, progress on cleaning up smog in the Los Angeles area largely has stalled under Burke’s tenure as chair of the AQMD.

‘There aren’t going to be any tears shed over Burke," summed up one of the CARB staff members.

Burke is married to Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke. He won the initial contract to operate the L.A. Marathon following the 1984 U.S. Olympic Games. Unlike marathons in several other cities, Burke has operated the Los Angeles race as a private, for-profit corporation even though he has received regular public subsidies such as fee waivers on publicity banners, subsidized trash cleanup and free stages needed to run the massive event. A 1995 audit found that Burke’s corporation failed to fully meet the terms of its marathon contract with the city between 1992 and 1994 by shorting the zoo and other departments on promised advertising.

Before that, as some council members pressed to fully recover the cost of the marathon to the city, the firm in 1991 exceeded city campaign-finance limits by giving excess contributions to numerous elected officials. Burke’s company used its employees to contribute to council members above the legal limit, and as a result, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission fined L.A. Marathon, Inc., $436,250 in 1994 for laundering campaign contributions.

At the AQMD, Burke joined with conservative Republicans to oust James M. Lents, the first executive officer of the agency who was able to develop a plan to fully clean up the region’s air pollution. Burke went on to intervene on behalf of Reverend Pat Robertson, who was seeking to open a closed-down oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs over the objections of local residents. At the same time, Robertson gave Burke an option on shares in a Liberian gold mine.

Schwarzenegger must replace Burke with someone from the 12-member board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Burke has built a reputation as one of L.A.’s leading power brokers, though he acknowledged in the March story that he no longer wields what he called "undue" influence at City Hall. "I had more influence then than I have now because of term limits. Everybody who knows me knows that I have never, never deviated from my efforts to improve all communities.

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