Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks accepted thousands of dollars in illegal contributions for his unsuccessful 2008 race for the County Board of Supervisors, according to a confidential report to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The report was completed in February 2010 and was kept secret for almost a year, until it was obtained by L.A. Weekly. The MTA repeatedly refused the Weekly’s request to provide the report under the Public Records Act, at one point denying that it even existed.
The report concludes that the MTA was powerless to punish the councilman because he had already stepped down from the agency’s board. “It is recommended that no action be taken,” wrote the author of the report, Paul Virgo, an attorney retained by the MTA to investigate complaints.
The episode highlights the MTA’s ineffectiveness in preventing its board members from accepting illegal contributions from contractors and bidders.
Any such contributions above $10 are against the law.
In another example this week, L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar agreed to return $1,500 in contributions from two towing companies that have bid for MTA contracts. He did so after he was asked about them by the Weekly.
Those contributions were discovered not by the MTA, but by the campaign of Rudy Martinez, Huizar’s opponent in the March 8 City Council race.
The contributions to Parks first became an issue in 2008, when activist Damien Goodmon alleged that Parks had accepted $21,800 from MTA contractors for his supervisor’s race. Parks’ opponent, Mark Ridley-Thomas, filed a complaint with the MTA’s ethics officer, Karen Gorman.
Gorman’s office has not acknowledged investigating the complaints or finding any of the allegations to be true — even though her office commissioned the investigation and received the report.
The report states that Parks took illegal contributions totaling $4,800 from five companies.
“According to the laws that apply to Metro, [Parks] should not have accepted contributions from firms doing business with Metro,” Virgo wrote.
Another $18,000 in contributions fell into a gray area. That money came from employees of Tutor-Saliba, a construction firm that was on a list of companies prohibited from contributing to board members in December 2007, when 16 of the 18 checks were written.
However, Virgo concluded that the checks could have been cashed in January 2008, by which time Tutor-Saliba was no longer on the banned list, and so there was no conclusive proof that those contributions were illegal.
The contributions that were indisputably illegal came from URS, Archeon, Carter & Burgess, KOAR Development Group and Bullock & Associates.
Parks blamed his staff for the oversight. He told the investigator that his treasurer was “experiencing family problems,” which may have explained why she accepted them.
Parks told the investigator that it was his general policy to return illegal contributions if his staff brought them to his attention.
However, Parks did not return the checks when activist Goodmon complained about them a few months later. In fact, he took a second illegal contribution from Archeon after Goodmon flagged the first one.
At the time, Parks was being heavily outspent by a labor-backed independent campaign, and he was running out of money.
Since losing the race, Parks has been sued by two campaign vendors who claim they were not paid for their work. Last month, a judge tentatively ruled that Parks is liable for a $50,000 bill for robocalls. Campaign consultant John Shallman has also sued Parks for about $150,000.
Parks stepped down from the MTA board in 2009, saying it was time to give someone else a turn.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Huizar to replace him. Two months later, Huizar received a $500 contribution from U.S. Tow, which held an MTA freeway service contract. The following month, he voted to increase the U.S. Tow contract by $820,000.
He also took $1,000 from the owner of ATS Northeast Tow, which bid for similar contracts. Parke Skelton, Huizar’s campaign consultant, says the campaign missed the contribution because the firm’s name was spelled out on the prohibited-contributor list.
“These are relatively minor things that don’t get caught,” Skelton says. “When they figure it out, people return the contributions and it’s no big deal.”
Martinez’s campaign criticized Huizar for taking the contributions.
“For the past five years, Mr. Huizar has been the king of pay-to-play politics,” says Eric Hacopian, Martinez’s spokesman. “Only after exposure from the media is he willing to abide by the laws of the city of Los Angeles. He should have never accepted these contributions in the first place, and his actions, as usual, come way too little and way too late.”
Parks also is running for re-election. His opponent is Forescee Hogan-Rowles, who has the backing of the same labor groups that supported Ridley-Thomas.
Hogan-Rowles’ consultant, Steve Barkan, called the confidential MTA report a “complete cover-up.”
“The MTA has had two years to take action,” Barkan says. “But instead the lawyers have buried their failure to enforce state-mandated ethics laws to protect Bernard Parks and his thousands of dollars of illegal campaign contributions.”
In an interview this week, Parks noted that the illegal contributions amounted to a small fraction of the $1.5 million he raised for the 2008 campaign.
“If that’s the level of perfection you’re looking for, write your story,” he says. “We had some controls in place. Obviously they didn’t work to perfection. If that’s the case, we have no excuse.”
L.A. Weekly requested a copy of the investigative report last August under the California Public Records Act. The MTA responded that it was “unable to locate any document relating to this matter.”
After further inquiries, the MTA’s records-management supervisor, Joe Parise, reiterated that the MTA Ethics Department “has no record of being asked to conduct or conducting such an investigation.”
Parise indicated, however, that the MTA “neither admits nor denies the existence of such an investigation” by a different MTA entity — the Inspector General. Parise said that any such investigation would be exempt from disclosure.
It’s not clear what practical distinction exists between the Ethics Department and the Office of Inspector General, since both are run by Karen Gorman. She commissioned the report, and is identified on it as both the chief ethics officer and the acting inspector general.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies, reviewed the report this week at the Weekly’s request. He said he was surprised that it recommended no action be taken against Parks.
“It’s obviously a violation of the Public Utilities Code,” he says. “So why didn’t they do something with the report?”
Stern suggests that, at the very least, the MTA could have referred the case to the Fair Political Practices Commission or the L.A. County District Attorney.
Barkan, who works alongside Skelton at SG&A Campaigns, argues that Parks’ violations are in a different category from Huizar’s. For one thing, Huizar agreed to return the contributions.
The Parks case demonstrates that if he hadn’t, he could have gotten away with it.
“This is a report that has been covered up for a year,” Barkan says.
“They said he did take these contributions, which he should not have been permitted to take, and they don’t have the authority to enforce the laws.”