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West Hollywood councilman's $7,000 in meals probed by prosecutors

May 5, 2012 |  9:25 am

West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran

West Hollywood Councilman John Duran charged dozens of meals to his city expense account, often multiple times a week. Over three years, he spent more than $7,000 at local restaurants, including at such upscale eateries as Cecconi's and Mirabelle on Sunset.

Those meals are now the focus of a probe by Los Angeles County prosecutors who are trying to determine whether Duran's meals violated state law. Prosecutors admit the restaurant bills are small compared with the huge sums involved in recent scandals in Bell, Vernon, Irwindale and elsewhere. But they argue there is an important principle that needs to be tested about how public officials spend taxpayer dollars.

Municipalities have been cracking down on expenses and compensation in the post-Bell era. But if prosecutors decide to file charges in the West Hollywood case, it could have implications for elected officials across California.

David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, said his office has never prosecuted an official for expensing meals inside the city he or she serves. But he said Duran's expenses are suspect because state rules allow meal and related expenses only for "necessary city business." Expensing a meal when out of town on city business is permitted, he said. But it's not justified to regularly expense meals within the city, especially when guests are other city employees, he said.

"I don't mind if Mr. Duran is the test case," he said. "The law is you can be reimbursed if it is a necessary expense. The meeting may be necessary, but the meal isn't in West Hollywood."

Prosecutors have collected hundreds of pages of records -- sales receipts, credit card statements and expense report forms -- from West Hollywood in recent months as part of an inquiry into whether the expenses violated state law. Demerjian said the meal expenses of other council members "paled in comparison" to Duran's expenses.

Duran has responded by creating a legal defense fund for himself.

After a community activist made some of the expenses public last year, West Hollywood took away council members' credit cards and tightened controls on spending. The Times has since reviewed hundreds of pages of expenses accrued by Duran and other council members.

Despite the uproar, City Atty. Michael Jenkins defends Duran's spending and insists he did nothing wrong. Jenkins says Duran followed city policy in the way he expensed the meals and that city rules allow him to be compensated for them.

Council members "work for a living, and it is very difficult to find the time necessary to conduct city business, so they meet with city employees or their deputies over lunch," Jenkins said.

"It doesn't matter if it is lunch or breakfast outside the boundaries; it doesn't make a difference," Jenkins added. "Is there something special about Sacramento versus downtown L.A.? No. That is not a valid legal distinction."

The city pays its full-time council deputies around $100,000 a year. The part-time council members each make about $15,000 a year, according to data from the state controller's office.

Until now, the district attorney's office has gone after officials whose use of city expenses has been blatant.

Longtime Vernon City Administrator Bruce Malkenhorst pleaded guilty last May to illegally using public money to pay for golf outings, massages and meals, as well as paying off his personal Visa credit card and getting the city to pay for his political donations. Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo and seven other Bell leaders were charged with looting more than $5.5 million from one of the county's poorest municipalities.

Demerjian acknowledges the West Hollywood case is more difficult and, if charges are filed, the case might test case law.


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Photo: West Hollywod City Councilman John Duran, shown last year, spent more than $7,000 at local restaurants at taxpayer expense. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times