Ethics in Transition

One of the first things Antonio Villaraigosa did after raising and spending nearly $6 million in campaign cash and getting elected mayor of Los Angeles was open up a fund for additional donations, these for the six-week transition between election day and July 1, when he takes office. The new spate of fund-raising won’t be governed by the city reporting and disclosure laws or the campaign-contribution caps that are administered by the City Ethics Commission, since these new contributions will be neither campaign funds nor officeholder funds under city law. The City Council cheerfully signed on to a program that is run through the controller’s office but puts Villaraigosa himself in charge of the fund, which will be capped at $200,000. In the resolution put forward by the council, the public is supposedly assured that the new donations from free-spenders in the city are in the public interest, since taxpayer funds won’t be used. In its nascent form, the transition-fund details were chilling. Anyone who wanted to throw around his or her weight in the new administration and be owed a hefty share of gratitude by the mayor had been frustrated by the city-imposed $1,000 campaign-contribution limit. After he takes office, if some influence-seeker wants to show Villaraigosa his, uh, appreciation for the fine job he’s doing, he can add to his officeholder fund, but still, only at $1,000 a year. How can you buy access and get your calls returned for a measly $1,000? Why, just about anyone could donate $1,000! Ah, but with this new opportunity, you could shovel as much as $10,000 in the new mayor’s direction. Sure, he’s already been elected, and your donation is for transition staffing and an inaugural party rather than leading him on to victory. But still, $10,000! That’s real gratitude-inducing money. That’s enough for several years of hobnobbing, returned phone calls, maybe even a special meeting to discuss a city contracting opportunity. And the bonus — this is a good one. If you wanted to donate money to the campaign or the officeholder fund, everyone is going to know it. You put in $100 or more, and the public gets to know your name, how much you gave and what you do for a living. They can pull it right off the Ethics Commission’s Web site. It’s that bothersome “openness” thing. But for the transition team, you could donate just under $5,000 and still keep it under your hat. What a deal! Now you voters or would-be contractors who donated your $1,000 or some such pittance and thought you could enjoy the same access as a business tycoon or a union boss, wise up! Sure, they could only put in $1,000, just like you. But that was then. This is now. Ten grand. Fork it over. Or else wonder why the phone doesn’t ring.

By the way, good news for you people who couldn’t read the writing on the wall and gave your paltry grand to Jim Hahn. You thought you were pretty much cashed out of the new era, but wait! You get another chance. A few thousand bucks to the transition team and you’re back in the game. This is as great an opportunity as when Hahn opened his legal-defense fund and you got to curry favor by donating to that pot. But hurry, because there’s that $200,000 cap on the transition fund, and there just may be 20 bigwigs with their checkbooks already out.


The real chilling part of the story is the response that the mayor-elect’s defenders gave when an eyebrow or two was raised at the transition fund-raising. It’s Antonio, many said. You know how he feels about ethics and buying City Hall. He’s not like Hahn. You can trust him.

But then we thought we could trust Hahn, too. Didn’t we? Then there was this one: Don’t you think things like transition staffing and an inaugural party should be paid for privately, instead of by the taxpayers? Well, no, since you asked. The transition — doesn’t that mean interviewing and hiring and loads of paperwork to make sure the new mayor can hit the ground running? That’s public business. Those transition people holed up in the 15th floor of City Hall — are they paying rent? No. They’re doing public business. To the extent it’s not public business, it’s a continuation of the campaign, and campaign reporting, spending and contribution-limit laws should apply. That’s especially true if these donations are for a big inaugural gala. Then there was the kicker. Hahn did it this way! Riordan did it! Everyone does it! There it is. Those words. You may have had a sinking feeling they were coming, but so soon? Before Villaraigosa even takes office? The watchwords for the new era at City Hall? “Everyone does it.” But wait. Villaraigosa apparently thought this whole thing over and decided there was something amiss with a chance to write him a check for $10,000. It took him a few days, but that’s okay. He’s been busy. Robin Kramer, who is heading Villaraigosa’s transition effort, said on Tuesday that the mayor-elect had decided to put a $1,000 cap on individual contributions after all. No one could say exactly when the decision was made, but it was done sometime after last Friday afternoon. It’s still not perfect. There’s still another chance for the access-seeker to jump in with a now-smaller contribution to pay for something that ought to be an accepted city function. But it’s surely a step in the right direction. What is the money for? There is a “rough budget,” Kramer said, with costs being allocated to lawyers, Web site maintenance, a fax machine, “a lot of paper” and a few “woefully underpaid” staffers. According to transition spokeswoman Elena Stern, there are no contributions so far. Kramer noted that Villaraigosa’s six-week transition is twice as long as Hahn’s. I’m not sure I buy the implied argument that the new mayor therefore should be able to raise more money than Hahn did, since there’s now twice as much time to get things done before July 1, but we’ll let that go. I still don’t see why it’s such a great idea that Villaraigosa’s people, instead of the Ethics Commission staff, examine the checks to make sure that no one is sneaking in an extra $1,000 by using a nickname or a pet’s name, but okay. And about that requirement that only checks in the $5,000 range or higher are subject to disclosure: That’s moot now, and Controller Laura Chick claims that any funds handled through her office will be a matter of public record. Villaraigosa is a creature of politics, and of the entire money-based system on which elections are based, so it should come as no surprise that despite his high-minded and self-serving campaign talk about changing the pay-to-play culture of City Hall, his first instinct is to raise cash at every opportunity. But he deserves credit for stepping back from the brink in this case, even if it’s just to acknowledge his campaign claims that he would be different. There will be more along these lines in the coming months. Villaraigosa is having all of his appointees and hires sign an ethics pledge. Having the pledge by itself does nothing, and could be considered at least a little bit sanctimonious. Same with the various pledges about lobbyists serving on commissions or making campaign donations, especially when they can still make “independent” expenditures, and especially when business and labor movers and shakers can host political fund-raisers that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars without reporting their involvement. Still, with another month to go before he’s sworn in, it’s good to see that Villaraigosa has the sense to make new rules for himself — better ones — on the fly.


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