Ex-L.A. council candidate fined for fraudulent bid for matching funds

Ethics Commission cites fraud, fines former L.A. City Council candidate Robert L. Cole Jr. over bogus campaign

A former Los Angeles City Council candidate has agreed to pay a $91,548 fine for fraudulently seeking matching funds from the city by claiming qualifying donations from bogus contributors, including at least five who were dead.

Robert L. Cole Jr., who lost the March primary to succeed termed-out Councilman Bernard C. Parks, had sought $61,000 in city funds but did not receive the money because city Ethics Commission staffers suspected fraud and launched an investigation.

According to a staff report to the Ethics Commission, which will decide whether to approve the stipulated agreement at its meeting on Tuesday, Cole tried to qualify for taxpayer matching funds for his campaign by claiming to have received $30,000 in donations from a long list of city residents. Investigators identified about 251 suspect contributions and began contacting those named as donors.

Investigators found more than 71% of the people they contacted denied contributing to Cole's campaign. In addition, at least five had died before the date of their alleged contribution, and several bona fide donors lived outside the city, disqualifying their contributions from counting toward a public match.

Cole subsequently admitted that he had provided false information; he had perjured himself by certifying that his claim and supporting documentation were true. He told investigators a volunteer had provided him with false information.

The fine recommended by the commission staff reflects the maximum penalty, according to the report. After providing copies of his tax returns to prove financial hardship, Cole likely will be allowed to pay in installments, beginning with an initial payment of $10,000, if the commission accepts its staff's recommendation. The remaining $81,548 would be paid in monthly installments starting July 15 and ending May 15, 2016.

Reached by telephone Wednesday, Cole blamed an "overzealous volunteer who took it upon themselves to try to help."

"Unfortunately, I didn't catch it, and I had to take ownership of it," even though he said he did not know what was going on at the time.

Cole said the volunteer, whom he declined to identify because "the city is still dealing with them," had admitted the scam to commission investigators. To cover donations made by members of Cole's family and others not living in the city, the volunteer used outdated voter rolls and attributed the contributions in small amounts to people on those rolls, including some who had died.

"I didn't do my due diligence" in verifying the contribution information, Cole said. "I was negligent."

Cole, 49, a political consultant and former president of the Baldwin Hills Homeowners Assn., sought the council district seat that ultimately was won by Community Coalition executive Marqueece Harris-Dawson. Cole said he also ran for the council in 2003.

The fine would be the second-highest assessed against a candidate for Los Angeles city office, according to Ethics Commission records. The highest was for $105,271 levied in 2006 against Martin Ludlow, who won his council race but was forced from office after pleading guilty to improperly using union workers in his campaign.

jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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