Column

When it comes to political donations in L.A., what's legal can be worse than what's not

It looked good. It sounded good.

The Los Angeles City Council, in the wake of recent Times exposes by David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes on City Hall’s legendary pay-to-play culture, took what seemed to be a positive step Tuesday to limit the influence of campaign donations from developers.

But don’t send cards of congratulations or break out the party hats just yet.

Just as no amount of Raid can kill all the cockroaches, in politics, money gets where it wants to go. Slam a door, and it finds two windows.

So sure, let’s ban donations to City Council members and the mayor from developers who have projects up for review by the city.

But I’m going to hazard a guess that such a ban wouldn’t be terribly effective, and I’m not even sure it’ll happen.

First, would the system be any cleaner if a developer could still make a donation several months before or after a project is in play? And as City Council members David Ryu, Joe Buscaino, Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin noted in their motion for the drafting of a new law by the city Ethics Commission, part of the challenge will be to define “developers and their principals.”

Would a developer’s spouse be banned from writing a check to a councilman or mayor, or a candidate? Would the developer’s employees, corporate partners, affiliated LLCs, lawyers, architects, consultants, neighbors, cousins, friends and golf partners also be banned, and if not, can anything really be accomplished?

If a recent ruling by the state Fair Political Practices Commission is any indication, it’s not so easy to stop the flow of money. Pismo Beach City Councilman Erik Howell — also a member of the California Coastal Commission — received a $1,000 donation in 2015 for his Pismo reelection bid. It came from the business and domestic partner of a powerful consultant with dozens of clients whose projects need approval from the Coastal Commission.

Shortly after receiving the donation, Howell had dinner with the consultant and voted in favor of a project she represented. The deal, as I noted recently, stank worse than a bucket of dead clams.

But the FPPC ruled that the donor did not herself represent the client whose project was in play, and there was no evidence her $1,000 was reimbursed by her company.

Case closed.

Now back to Los Angeles.

There are good and bad developers, and good and bad developments, here in a city where public officials have failed to come up with coherent planning guidelines, inviting chaos and influence-peddling. There are also good and bad development foes, some of whom write checks to politicians, as do members of building trades unions.

Would a donation ban on developers, and no one else, be fair or effective in a city where it’s legal for lobbyists to host fundraisers for elected officials and then do business before them?

Regardless of the answers to all those questions, there’s a bigger reason the impact of this proposal would be practically nil.

First of all, an individual developer can only write a $700 check to a candidate. But there are other ways to apply the grease, with no limits on donation amounts and arguably less transparency.

You can make a lasting impression on an elected official by writing a fat check to his or her pet project, or to a ballot initiative he or she supports, or to independent expenditure committees that support or attack candidates and causes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has opened the mother’s milk spigot wide, creating a national cesspool. When it comes to money and influence in politics, there’s no need to break the law. The biggest threat to good government is what’s perfectly legal. 

As Zahniser reported late last month, developer Rick Caruso’s charitable foundation has provided $125,000 to a nonprofit fund set up by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. And Caruso’s companies gave $200,000 to Measure M, the transportation sales tax supported by Garcetti.

And by the way, Caruso wants Garcetti and City Council members — many of whom he’s donated to — to greenlight a 20-story building on a Beverly Grove site where the current height limit is 45 feet.

More from our man Dave Z.:

Westfield, the mall people, want to build a $1.5-billion project in the San Fernando Valley, and they gave $950,000 to two Garcetti initiatives. Twentieth Century Fox Film wants to add 1.1 million square feet to to its Century City facilities, and Fox’s related companies have plowed $1.25 million into the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles and the transportation initiative Garcetti supported.

In L.A., a ban on $700 donations by developers would be about as effective as a Band-Aid on organ cancer.

So are we utterly helpless, with no better way to fumigate City Hall?

Yes and no.

At the very least, says Jessica Levinson, Loyola Law School professor and president of the L.A. City Ethics Commission, we can shine a much brighter light on who’s writing checks to whom.

“It would be useful to know if a City Council person gets 50% of his or her donations from dentists, or from real estate developers … something that allows people to infer something about the politician,” Levinson said.

But that information isn’t readily available.

“You look at the city’s Ethics website and it’s unbelievably outdated,” said City Controller Ron Galperin. “It was state of the art for 1984.”

What we need, he said, is “radical transparency.”

“There are some amazing tools out there that will help you connect the dots and know who’s giving, what their associates are doing, what projects they have,” said Galperin.

Taxpayers should be able to go to the city Ethics Commission website and get that information easily, he said, and “there’s no good reason it shouldn’t be available in a day or two” instead of the months it now takes.

“And then elected officials can decide if they want the cloud of a certain contribution to be over them, and developers, knowing everything’s going to be out there for everyone to see … can [decide] whether they really want to make that contribution.”

In the last line of their motion for a ban on developer donations Tuesday, council members did ask for the Ethics Commission to improve transparency and report on the cost of “an accessible and easy-to-navigate website.”

“If I could get some budget money to work on this with Ethics, I would love to do so,” said Galperin, adding that it wouldn’t cost a fortune for a serious upgrade.

I’ve got an idea.

Developers and other high rollers have donated millions to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which is always looking for a good cause.

Could there be a better one than cleaning up City Hall?

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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