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Groundless Logic

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was criticized last week for taking a ride to Rosa Parks’ Detroit funeral on a corporate jet owned by Ameriquest Mortgage Company, his lawyer made it clear that because of previous ties the mayor “had already concluded that he would recuse himself from all city matters” involving the subprime mortgage lender.

How do we know? Because the mayor said so. That will have to do, because according to counsel to the mayor Tom Saenz, there is no record, no register, no document to show that Villaraigosa has kept himself from making any decision as mayor that would involve Ameriquest.

Saenz said no such matter has come before the mayor.

So what else has Villaraigosa recused himself from? What other companies or individuals are on the list of matters over which the mayor of the city of Los Angeles has declined to exercise his authority? Are they limited to matters that would present a real conflict of interest under law, or just an appearance of impropriety?

Saenz offered that the mayor would recuse himself from any matter involving a member of his family. Okay, that makes sense. But the rest of the list rests, apparently, only in the mayor’s conscience, as matters come up from time to time. Circumstantially.

His ties to Ameriquest go back at least to his days as assembly speaker, when the company gave thousands of dollars to a committee he controlled. Then, during Villaraigosa’s two years in exile from politics, between the time he lost the first mayor’s race against Jim Hahn to the time he was elected to the City Council, he was a paid consultant to the company. Later, the company contributed to his winning mayoral campaign and then gave $100,000 to the inaugural gala fund-raiser for L.A.’s BEST, an after-school program.

Now, Villaraigosa has written a letter supporting President Bush’s nomination of the company’s principal owner, Roland E. Arnall, as ambassador to the Netherlands.

In Villaraigosa’s first post-inaugural news conference, at which he introduced Saenz, detailed his new higher standards on ethical conduct, and announced that he had kicked Mike Roos and other lobbyists off city commissions, the mayor stiffened and appeared to take offense when asked if donors who gave to the inaugural had found a backdoor way to curry favor. Not, he said, when the money was going to an urgently needed and well-regarded education program.

Roos is now a City Hall lobbyist for Ameriquest but, presumably, does not talk with the mayor’s office.

Villaraigosa has some politically sensitive ties to the company but it’s not exactly clear why he has gone to the extent of recusing himself now, and forever, from anything involving Ameriquest. There is nothing that he has done — taken political donations, taken a consulting fee more than two years ago, written a supportive letter, ridden on a private jet — that is in any way a legal conflict of interest. At least not since he paid a commercial fare equivalent to $438 for the jet ride, unless you accept the plausible argument that he should be paying the $19,000 that an equivalent corporate jet would charge.

The statement that he recused himself appears tailored to deflect criticism, but it hasn’t helped. There is something more than a little Clintonesque about saying, afterward, “Don’t worry, there was no conflict, because I knew all along in my mind that I’d be recusing myself.”

What is Ameriquest anyway? A subprime lender, the Orange-based company makes mortgages available to people who don’t qualify in the prime market, so you could argue that they extend the dream of homeownership to families that otherwise would never get a slice of the pie.

But the fact remains that the company was accused in 32 states (including California) of tricking people who do qualify for better terms into paying confiscatory fees or, in some nightmarish cases, of losing their houses and their savings in foreclosure.

As for Arnall, the O.C. Weekly listed him in its Halloween edition as the county’s fifth-scariest resident, not just for his company’s actions but also because of the funding he directs toward some of the very same politicians and policies one would think Villaraigosa opposes.

For example, as the mayor was campaigning against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures, Ameriquest was one of the chief funders of the recently defeated Proposition 75 union paycheck measure and the Proposition 77 redistricting initiative. The company has given the governor more than a million dollars in the last two years.

Arnall was a Ranger for Bush’s re-election campaign, meaning he raised at least $200,000. His wife, Dawn Arnall, gave $5 million to Progress for America, which is lobbying for confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, according to the Los Angeles Times.

None of these things require Villaraigosa to recuse himself. But they do seem worth knowing, especially when the mayor has vowed to continue his strong support for Arnall, and intends again to grab a ride on a corporate jet when his busy schedule demands it.


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