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Ethics Commission votes to ban officials from taking free tickets from those seeking city business

September 14, 2010 | 12:57 pm
The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission voted Tuesday to propose that high-level officials be barred from receiving free entry to concerts, sports events and other cultural activities if the donor of the ticket has business pending before the city.

On a 4-1 vote, the panel said such a ban should apply even in cases in which an elected official, city commissioner or high-level manager is performing a ceremonial duty, such as handing over a city proclamation.
The action comes three months after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa confirmed that he has attended dozens of events for free without reporting them as gifts -- or keeping track of the official city business performed at those events. Villaraigosa said that under state law, the tickets were not considered gifts because he was performing an official city duty, usually presenting someone with a city proclamation.

Commissioner Nedra Jenkins, an appointee of former City Controller Laura Chick, cast the lone vote against the proposal, saying elected officials make the city look good by performing official duties at awards shows, film festivals and other events.
“It’s as if we believe everybody’s corrupt, and I just don’t think everybody’s corrupt and everybody’s subject to undue influence,” she said.
The commission will need to vote a second time on the specific language to be included in an ordinance. Then the measure would head to the City Council for a vote before going into effect.
Since he took office in 2005, Villaraigosa has received free entry to games and concerts from companies seeking a specific decision from the city, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and L.A. Live. AEG has sought approval of tax breaks and new billboards in recent years, while the owners of the Dodgers have met with city officials over development plans, shuttle buses and the route for the Los Angeles Marathon.
Stephen J. Kaufman, an attorney for the mayor, had no comment after the vote, but Jenkins said she did not like the idea of a high-level official having to exit an event abruptly to avoid having to pay. “I don’t think the public is sitting in their living room saying, I’m upset that my public official is attending the Oscars,” she added.

Commissioner Valerie Vanaman had a different take, saying companies with business before City Hall could exert “undue influence” by providing free entry to pricey events. Vanaman said elected officials would still be allowed to perform a ceremonial city duty but should pay their way if they intend to enjoy the entire event.

“I don’t think there is any benefit that we get as a city by having them in the audience,” she said.

In recent years, the mayor has gone for free to the Oscars, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That group has been in talks with various city officials -- including the mayor’s office -- over a proposed development project in Hollywood. The group also has weighed in repeatedly on the city’s plan for leasing 10 city-owned parking garages, which is part of Villaraigosa’s effort to raise revenue and avoid considerably deeper budget cuts.
The Ethics Commission also voted to seek an ordinance requiring high-level officials to disclose the free tickets they receive from businesses or individuals that do not have business pending before them. And the commissioners voted 4-1, with Jenkins opposed, to bar gifts of any amount from companies that do business with the city.
Any changes to the city’s ethics law require approval from the City Council, which has shown a great reluctance to pass new measures backed by the panel. For the last 12 months, the council has declined to take up a measure from the commission that is designed to eliminate loopholes in its lobbying ordinance.

Even as commissioners sought to ban high-level officials from accepting gifts from companies that do business with the city, they also voted 4-1 to recommend a provision that gives some leeway to officials who did not know that the source of the gift had a contract or another matter pending before a city agency.

Commissioner Marlene Canter opposed that provision, calling it a loophole that would make enforcement of the gift ban more difficult. "If we keep it at zero, it’s just a lot better for the people who are involved,” said Canter, a former school board member.

Commission President Helen Zukin disagreed, saying the provision would provide “some element of reasonableness” to the city’s gift laws.

-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall