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Inglewood mayor's campaign lent nearly $160,000 to a political ally. None of it has been paid back

Inglewood mayor's campaign lent nearly $160,000 to a political ally. None of it has been paid back
Inglewood Mayor James Butts, pictured at a meeting Tuesday, has lent nearly $160,000 to help elect a former planning commissioner to the City Council. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

When George Dotson decided to run for Inglewood City Council, the former planning commissioner got a big financial boost from the man running the city: Mayor James T. Butts.

The largess came in the form of loans from the mayor’s election campaign. Dotson’s campaign committees have received nearly $160,000 from Butts’ campaign committees since 2012, and Dotson has proved a reliable ally of the mayor.

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The loans helped propel the 77-year-old to victory in a race against an incumbent. Years later, Dotson’s campaign still has not paid back the loans.

It’s not illegal for campaigns to have unpaid loans — but no other member of the City Council has received this level of monetary support from the campaign of Butts, who is now running for a third term.

When reached by phone, Dotson, who was reelected in 2017, told The Times, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you right now” and hung up. He didn’t respond to repeated follow-up requests for comment.

Butts said Dotson, a longtime local businessman, asked for his help during his 2013 run for office and that the $157,600 he lent in total was “organic” and not something they agreed upon in advance. He added that he expects Dotson to pay him back eventually and that he’s “very confident he’ll be able to do that.”

“The bulk of those loans were for his run for the first term in office,” Butts said. “The incumbent was very obstructionist about everything we did to try to move the city forward, and I felt that Councilman Dotson would be a better representative for District One.”

Like the rest of the Inglewood City Council, Dotson has been a reliable supporter of Butts’ agenda, including advocating for a basketball arena complex for the Clippers near the site of the multibillion-dollar football stadium under construction for the Rams and Chargers.

For the past two years, the City Council’s only non-unanimous votes occurred when a member recused himself — a detail first reported by the Daily Breeze, underscoring how Dotson and his fellow council members move in lockstep with Butts’ plans for the city.

It’s common for a politician to donate to his or her allies’ campaigns. It’s not common, however, for a candidate to make loans of this size to an ally’s campaign and not be recompensated at all, said Bob Stern, good-government expert who wrote the state law governing gifts to public officials.

“This is done all the time where you help your colleagues win elections,” Stern said of the loans. “It’s not something you like necessarily, but that’s the way the game is played.”

The nature of these loans was part of a broader complaint filed to the state’s top political watchdog in July by Inglewood resident David Turner, who previously worked for a nonprofit run by a prominent opponent of Butts and the Clippers project.

Turner, who declined to comment, is a community organizer and doctoral student at UC Berkeley. He alleges conflicts of interest involving the mayor and failures to disclose certain economic interests.

“It is hard to conceive of a local elected official making such large loans without receiving any form of repayment for such a long period of time,” Turner wrote in his complaint. “These outstanding loans raise the question of whether Mr. Dotson’s obligation to Mr. Butts has colored his official actions in voting with Mayor Butts on most of the major issues facing the City over the course of the last five years.”

The California Fair Political Practices Commission — a bipartisan committee that oversees campaign finance, conflicts of interest and government ethics — said it would investigate the allegations that are “under the jurisdiction of the Commission.”

“At this time we have not made any determination about the validity of the allegations,” the commission said in a letter to Turner last month.

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The loans likely didn’t run afoul of campaign finance rules. A spokesman for the FPPC told The Times that it’s permissible for a candidate to carry loans like this in perpetuity as long they are reported on campaign disclosure forms.

“Under state law, there is no time limit for how long a local candidate may continue to have an outstanding loan on their current committee as long as it is reported,” the FPPC spokesman said.

Stern, the ethics expert, said it would be a criminal violation if the monetary support were given on condition that the politician vote a certain way after he or she was elected to the council, “but that’s not for the FPPC to look into.”

Inglewood City Councilman George Dotson, pictured at Tuesday's meeting, has not repaid the loans.
Inglewood City Councilman George Dotson, pictured at Tuesday's meeting, has not repaid the loans. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Other allegations in the complaint, which was first reported by KCET, concern alleged conflicts of interest by Butts and his failure to disclose certain economic interests.

They stem in part from reporting by the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets publications. In February, The Times reported on Butts’ role in a $100-million waste-collection contract approved by the City Council in 2012. The work didn’t go to the lowest bidder but to another company with higher fees — and a connection to Butts. Three months before the contract was approved, Consolidated Disposal Services hired the Mayor’s then-unemployed brother Michael Butts as a $72,000-a-year operations manager.

The Times and others reported that Butts, as a condition for his support, asked bidders to make the hire. The FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office investigated the garbage contract, and no charges were filed.

Butts has denied getting his brother the job. In a 2013 memo, the district attorney’s office said that while the mayor may have tried to get his brother hired with companies vying for these contracts, “this conflict of interest is not, by itself, criminal.”

“The allegations were investigated by the district attorney’s office. They found no merit to them and that someone repackages them and sends them to the FPPC doesn’t change anything,” Butts said. “There’s really nothing more to say.”

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In August, the district attorney’s office confirmed to The Times that it received a new complaint about Butts’ brother’s work and the garbage contract and is reviewing it.

Butts’ brother and Consolidated Disposal Services’ parent company didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Turner, who filed the complaint, also alleges that Butts violated conflict of interest rules by voting on rate increases for the trash hauling company when they came before the City Council over the last six years.

Butts’ brother also claimed in a 2013 bankruptcy filing that he was paying $1,600 to live in a home owned by his brother — an income the mayor never disclosed on forms submitted with the state, which detail the incomes of elected officials. In the past, Butts has said that he didn’t charge his brother to live in a home he owns on Shenandoah Avenue in Los Angeles.

“Mayor Butts appears to have had a direct financial interest in awarding the franchise to Consolidated that goes beyond pure nepotism,” the complaint states.

The complaint also details how both Butts and Dotson allegedly failed to file campaign donation disclosures on transactions of $1,000 or more. These filings are required within 24 hours in the 90 days preceding an election.

If a violation is found, the FPPC can levy administrative fines and refer cases to local districts attorney offices.

Times staff writers Angel Jennings and Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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