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Villaraigosa's Five-Year Free Ticket Spree

At least it's ethical: Villaraigosa poses with a wax statue of Kobe Bryant.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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.

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.

Based on documents obtained under the California Public Records Act, this paper found that Villaraigosa spends only 11 percent of his time on core city business, such as learning about policy issues, signing legislation, or meeting with department heads, community leaders or his chief of staff.

Two decades ago, similar behavior in the waning days of Tom Bradley's administration brought that popular mayor strong criticism. The aging Bradley had begun to spend a great deal of time at ribbon cuttings, banquets and other ceremonial events. But in those days, L.A. had a weaker mayoral system than it does now, so Bradley had fewer real powers than Villaraigosa enjoys.

This mayor has been given a measure of political cover for his approach to the job by the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, whose editorials have argued that his devotion to ceremonial and self-promotional activities is good for L.A.

Yet it was a Times newsman, Willon, who determined that the mayor uses his largely ceremonial position to justify a lavish lifestyle financed on somebody else's dime. Willon spent months reviewing thousands of photographs of Villaraigosa at sporting and cultural events, and pored over five years of his personal schedule.

— Clarissa Wei also contributed to this report


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