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Judge rejects bid to sidestep L.A. contribution limit [Updated]

November 24, 2009 |  6:50 pm
A federal judge turned down the request today of a political committee with close ties to the Department of Water and Power employee unions that had sought to bar the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission from enforcing a campaign contribution limit.

The group, Working Californians, said the law was preventing it from making independent expenditures for Los Angeles City Council candidate Christine Essel in her Dec. 8  runoff against Assemblyman Paul Krekorian.

Independent groups have spent more than $542,000 to boost Essel’s bid for the San Fernando Valley council seat of former Councilwoman Wendy Greuel in the last few weeks. Greuel is now city controller.

Working Californians, which is co-chaired by the heads of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11 and Local 18, had challenged a 1985 city law stating that a political committee cannot accept contributions greater than $500 if it intends to use that money on an independent expenditure for a city candidate. Working Californians claimed that the provision violated its free speech rights and asked the court to intervene immediately.

The executive director of the Ethics Commission had argued that the city’s contribution limits were intended “to limit corruption and the appearance of corruption so that voters can have faith in the electoral process."

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson concluded that Working Californians had “not established a likelihood of success on the merits of its 1st Amendment claims.” The ruling noted that the group had received contributions from just six sources since 2007 — including the two political action committees controlled by IBEW Local 18 and Local 11.
Pregerson also said the group had not provided evidence that enforcement of the restrictions would "effectively thwart its ability to make independent expenditures” in the two weeks before the runoff.
“Working Californians is free to solicit contributions from as many donors as it likes, and assuming that no individual contribution exceeds the city’s $500 threshold, it can spend as much as it likes,” the judge wrote.
Krekorian, who intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the city, said the ruling “completely vindicates the effort we made to protect the city ethics laws that the voters enacted a quarter of a century ago.”

“This lawsuit was about nothing but concealing special interest money from the voters of L.A. It had nothing to do with 1st Amendment,” Krekorian said.

Stephen J. Kaufman, a lawyer for Working Californians, could not be reached for comment.

[Updated 8:05 p.m.: Stephen J. Kaufman, a lawyer for Working Californians, said the group was exploring its legal options in light of the ruling. "We are disappointed that the judge ignored the overwhelming legal precedent, but we are confident we will ultimately prevail on this issue," Kaufman said.]

-- Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall