Villaraigosa's Vanishing Veracity
The lofty-sounding 2005 directive from Antonio Villaraigosa read: "Avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest at all times during my service to the city of Los Angeles ... Take full responsibility for learning and complying with all laws and rules governing the standards of conduct for public officials, including gift restrictions, disclosure requirements and campaign finance limitations."
Those 49 words were contained in the ethics pledge that the fresh-faced new mayor, who campaigned, in part on a vow to clean up Los Angeles City Hall, required his dozens of political commissioners to sign.
Whatever comes of the controversy over more than $50,000 in free tickets, meals and other perks Villaraigosa quietly accepted to sports, cultural and other local events, from the Dodgers, Lakers, Academy Awards and other groups, it is clear that within months of his May 2005 victory over James Hahn, Villaraigosa abruptly abandoned his Executive Directive No. 1 — when it came to his own conduct.
At first, Villaraigosa took few free tickets. But in November 2005, he listened intently to ethics advice from Chris Modrzejewski, a lobbyist for billionaire Phil Anschutz's AEG who advised the mayor's aide on how to get free Lakers tickets. "For the mayor to accept [game] tickets he must have an 'official' role," the lobbyist said in an e-mail. He suggested that Villaraigosa create "a certificate to the Lakers organization for their work in the community."
From that moment, the mayor was addicted to box seats and front-row bling. He took only six tickets that year. But over the next five years, Villaraigosa accepted — and even angled for — 79 free tickets, and failed to report all but one of them as political gifts, ignoring a state ethics law that requires he report all gifts of more than $50 and city ethics laws that he not accept any annual gifts valued at more $100 with anyone doing business with the city.
The Weekly has determined that the mayor slowed his freebie pace only during 2007, when he ducked the public eye due to a scandal over his affair with TV anchor Mirthala Salinas; the affair ruined his marriage.
Sarah Hamilton, Villaraigosa's spokeswoman, did not answer the Weekly's question about whether the mayor tried to learn from his lawyers if the AEG lobbyist's advice was ethical or legal. The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission says, however, that for five years the mayor never tried to discern the legality of his behavior from them.
After being called out by KTTV Fox 11 News in late May, Villaraigosa attempted to claim that whenever Villaraigosa goes out in public he is on "official business." The argument is based on an Ethics Commission opinion written in 2004 to Hahn that described Hahn as the city's "ambassador."
If Villaraigosa's logic prevails, he could overturn long-standing city rules against influence-peddling and freebies — and upend the very ethics standards he vowed to protect in 2005.
According to Roman Porter, executive director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Villaraigosa never asked the FPPC if his acceptance of extensive free tickets and failure to report them were within state law. But more importantly, Porter says, showing one's face in public puts no California politician above anticorruption laws: "The state rules require a public official to perform a duty on behalf of the [city]. Merely being a public official is not enough to use this exception."
Now, the FPPC is investigating the mayor's actions.
There is compelling evidence that Villaraigosa knew this, and that he understood that his actions failed to comport with his vow to uphold high ethical standards.
And there is evidence that the mayor or his staff took actions to obscure his behavior. Day in and out, for years, the mayor's team routinely released his public schedule to the local newswire, City News Service, delineating his official activities and promotion of the city. Yet during that time, the Office of the Mayor failed to list innumerable free-ticket events Villaraigosa attended.
That lapse left the mayor in a real bind in late May month, once Fox 11 News broke the free-ticket controversy.
In response to Channel 11's exposé, Villaraigosa and his lawyer, Brian Currey, admitted that the mayor didn't report to the City Ethics Commission more than 80 free tickets as gifts, as required under anticorruption laws but argued that the sporting and cultural events were the mayor's "official business."
But if that were true — that they were "official business" — why were the activities consistently left off the mayor's daily schedule, when the mayor's office released his schedule to the media via City News Service each day over five years?
That was the awkward question put to Currey by a reporter for City News Service at the mayor's Press Room last Friday.
Journalist Christina Villacorte identified herself as the person in charge of sending out to other news organizations the mayor's schedule from City News Service. Villacorte then asked Currey: "If you really wanted to promote the mayor being at an event, why wouldn't you put it on the schedule?"
In a circuitous answer, Currey's cited such reasons as "security" for the big gaps in the mayor's official daily schedules — raising more questions from Villacorte, because far less–secure events have been routinely announced than the ones the mayor has been keeping off the City News list.
Before that exchange, sitting at a long table with journalists, Currey conceded, "The practice with respect to labeling events private or not private seems to have been applied inconsistently."
There is yet another discrepancy facing the mayor: When L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and Fox 11 News requested the mayor's official, personal schedule under the California Public Records Act — each at different times, and each to see how the mayor was doing his job — Villaraigosa's office blacked out various lines or otherwise redacted the information, claiming those lines contained private information.
It is now clear that dozens of freebie events attended by Villaraigosa were being blacked out because some members of the mayor's staff believed his sports and cultural activities were private time, and not official business — a sentiment shared by many of his critics.
As John Schwada reported on Fox 11 News just after the district attorney announced he had opened an investigation, "on most days" that the mayor got access to free Lakers seats costing up to $3,000, Villaraigosa's calendar "indicated they were private events."
Watching all this from the sidelines have been former staff members to James Hahn. They say the media should have noticed a while ago that Villaraigosa was flaunting city ethics laws by taking scads of these gifts.
Says one former top aide to Hahn, who, like Mayor Richard Riordan, did not take free tickets, "It's just well known that every time he wants to go to a game, just bring a certificate. The joke is that Tommy Lasorda has a stack of mayoral certificates in his office from Antonio: 'Happy Month of March!' "
Hahn and Villaraigosa had bitter relations, having fought each other for the top City Hall job in two ugly elections during which both men played hardball. In the 2005 election, Villaraigosa delighted in calling Hahn "the most investigated mayor in Los Angeles history" over an overbilling scandal involving the Department of Water and Power and a city contractor, Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations.
In the end, court testimony failed to make any link between the scandal and Hahn himself, and Hahn is now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. But the scandal tainted Hahn's administration and helped Villaraigosa to pull ahead and win the 2005 election.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who worked on Hahn's successful and unsuccessful campaigns against Villaraigosa, says Hahn "never took free tickets." His view of Villaraigosa's reading of the rules is, "You're growing up as a kid, and you say to your parents, 'I want to stay out 'til midnight,' and they say, 'You absolutely can't do that!' and you stay out to 1 a.m., and they ask you why, and you say, 'You told me I can't be out 'til midnight!' "
Riordan says he thinks the embarrassment and shame "have been punishment enough" for the mayor but then tells the Weekly he would like to see Villaraigosa "stop making these stupid statements that he was there on business.
"You don't want to do things in the aftermath that are actually more evil than what you did," Riordan says. "C'mon, Antonio, we are not that naive. Official business? So, my feeling is, this guy has suffered enough. But quit making these statements that this was about business. And please, please get on with fixing the city."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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