Ethics troubles could mount for ex-candidate who missed fine payment

Former city council candidate accused of filing bogus campaign contribution information misses fine payment

A Los Angeles City Council candidate accused of filing bogus information about campaign contributions — attributing multiple donations to dead people — faced potentially more trouble Tuesday after he failed to submit the first payment on a proposed $91,548 fine.

Robert L. Cole Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in March, signed an agreement two weeks ago promising to make a series of payments to the City Ethics Commission, part of his attempt to resolve claims that his campaign had submitted names of phony contributors.

The five-member commission had been set to approve the agreement with Cole, including the fine, on Tuesday. But after Cole's first $10,000 payment failed to arrive, the panel rejected the agreement on a 3-to-1 vote.

"The fact that [Cole's campaign] didn't show up with the first check does not give me a lot of confidence that they're going to show up with the rest of the checks," said Commission President Nathan Hochman.

Cole declined an interview request, saying a family member had a stroke and he had gone to the hospital. In a series of emails, he said he still plans to send the $10,000, as required by the agreement. "It will be complied with," he wrote.

Commissioners are set to revisit the case in August. If Cole fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, officials could scrap plans to let him pay over a 12-month period. The agency could also file an enforcement action against Cole with additional violations.

Investigators contend that Cole, who ran to replace Councilman Bernard C. Parks in a South Los Angeles district, submitted the fraudulent information while applying for more than $61,000 in public matching funds for his campaign. When he requested that money, Cole informed the agency he had nearly 200 contributions of $20 each, according to a report submitted to the commission.

To qualify for matching funds, candidates must show they have at least $5 each from 200 residents who live in the city. Ethics officials declined to give Cole the money after concluding that his campaign had submitted false information.

At least five named contributors turned out to be dead, according to the report, and of those who were still alive, several said they had not made donations. "More than 71% of the alleged contributors who were contacted stated that they had not contributed to the committee," the report said.

Cole told The Times last week that he was unaware during the campaign that incorrect donation information had been submitted. In an interview, he attributed the problems to an overzealous volunteer but took overall responsibility. "I didn't do my due diligence," he said.

During Tuesday's meeting, commissioner Ana Dahan asked whether the panel should still approve the agreement with Cole while giving him more time to comply. But Hochman said the agency already had taken the step of putting Cole on a payment plan after the candidate said he lacked the money to pay the full fine.

Sergio Perez, the commission's director of enforcement, would not discuss details of the case. But he told the panel that the agency's failure to get the first payment "is not due to a technicality."

Perez had recommended that Cole receive the maximum penalty because of the "egregious nature" of the violations. Under the proposed agreement, Cole would pay more than $7,400 per month through June 2016.

In their report on the case, investigators said Cole admitted telling a campaign volunteer to come up with a specified number of contributions "by any means necessary." That volunteer collected contributions from Cole's family and friends, divided the money into $20 amounts and attributed them to people living in the district. Those names came from an outdated list that included deceased voters, according to the ethics agency.

In a separate action on Tuesday, the commission handed a $10,000 fine to billboard company Lamar over expenditures the company made during the 2013 election.

Investigators said Lamar had failed to submit information during the campaign about the type of billboard advertising it had installed on behalf of mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel and three council candidates: Curren Price, Nury Martinez and Cindy Montañez.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Follow @DavidZahniser for more news from L.A. City Hall

Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report

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