LAURA CHICK NEARLY HAD to beg the Ethics Commission to punish her.
As a sign of how drastically things have changed on the five-member L.A. campaign panel, the commissioners questioned the city controller for nearly an hour last week on why they should let her admit that she violated campaign fund-raising limits in 2001, and why they ought to let her pay a fine. It was such a puny error. Shouldn’t she just skate, the same way the commission let the city attorney (and his opponent) skate the week before?
The newest commissioner, Sean Treglia, came close to saying strict enforcement of contribution limits was dangerous to democracy. Supposing you’re my role model, he told Chick. But then I get campaign mail from your opponent reporting your tangle with finance laws and the city Ethics Commission.
“Now, on the one hand I know intuitively that you’ve been a great public leader,” Treglia worried aloud. “On the other hand, I begin to feel that the system stinks.”
Worse yet, he said, what if you’re a lesser-known candidate running on a good-government platform? “And in the last campaign you made an inadvertent error. Then the scenario begins to change a little.”
The thrust of the comments seemed to be, stop us before we kill democracy again!
But no, Chick was insistent. “If we don’t enforce [campaign-finance limits], we are in effect sending a message that either the ordinances need to be changed and they are wrong, or it’s okay for individuals to decide when and if they will follow the rules,” Chick said. “And I think that’s a dangerous place to go.”
For 14 years the Ethics Commission’s audit staff has checked every candidate’s campaign-contribution records. When it finds some well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) donor has inadvertently (or intentionally) given more than the $500-per-election limit to City Council candidates, or more than the $1,000 limit for mayor, city attorney and controller candidates — and the candidate has accepted it — the enforcement staff takes over.
The candidate is called, the goof is admitted, a fine is proposed, the candidate agrees to pay and the commission signs off. That’s it. Generally speaking, if there’s evidence of intent, or repeated violations, the proposed penalty will be much higher. Anyone who insists he didn’t really break the law can get a full hearing, and the commissioners will listen to the evidence and make their decision. Short of that, though, there is no weighing of evidence, because no evidence is before the commission. There’s just an accusation by the staff, and an admission by the candidate. That’s the way it works.
Until now. Last month, after half a year of hemming and hawing over findings of contribution-limit violations in the city attorney campaigns of Rocky Delgadillo and Mike Feuer, a majority of commissioners finally decided to reject the admissions and the penalties. They’re just too small, they said, even though they did not hear any evidence. Could happen to anyone. Let’s just forget the whole thing.
Then it was Chick’s turn. Keep in mind that Delgadillo, as city attorney, and Chick, as city controller, are supposed to have key roles in overseeing compliance with city laws and ethical practices. They also both have appointees sitting on the Ethics Commission. How about that?
As soon as Chick was confronted with her campaign’s clerical goof, she announced that she was embarrassed by the mistakes and intended to pay the full $4,500 from her own pocket. She did jump the gun a bit. The final tab was only $4,000, and she will split it with her campaign treasurer, who was also named by the enforcement staff.
But she didn’t let the commission let her off the hook.
Politically shrewd? Sure. But so what? Doing the right thing is still doing the right thing.
Chick could not quite bring herself to say that the Ethics Commission had taken a dangerous turn by deciding — without articulated standards or guidelines — that some violations, by some people, should be ignored. She did say, though, that either the commission should go back to “enforcing every misstep,” or the city should change the law.
Former District Attorney Gil Garcetti launched the commission’s re-direction a year ago when he became the panel’s president. It is clear from his public statements at the commission that he and his colleagues are worried about strict enforcement because they are worried about newspapers reporting it.
“The L.A. Times and others would usually give it some kind of a headline, be it on the first page, or the first page of the California section, or the third page of the California section,” he said at the last commission meeting. “The headline was there. And so the damage was done.”
That seemed to be Treglia’s concern as well. Negative news about candidates! What will the people think?
Even Chick admitted to a “paranoid nightmare” — the newspaper reports the violation, and an opponent duplicates the headline on a mailer. But she acknowledged, later, that it has never happened to her. News reports of Ethics Commission actions on campaign violations have never, in fact, been used successfully to defeat a candidate for office.
Is it just that the L.A. press covers city government too aggressively? Political campaigns are too competitive? Is that what the Ethics Commission is thinking?
“If there were a way to prohibit negative newspaper articles, of course I’d be in favor of that,” Chick told the commissioners. She was joking. I hope they realized that.