A Los Angeles City Council candidate who is married to a labor attorney is facing questions about whether he would have to pull himself away from council decisions involving her union clients if elected.
Former state lawmaker Wally Knox is among more than a dozen candidates competing in the 4th District, a patchwork of neighborhoods stretching from Miracle Mile to Sherman Oaks.
His wife, Beth Garfield, works for the law firm of Holguin, Garfield, Martinez & Quiñonez, which represents a number of local unions, including those for city firefighters and port pilots.
One of his rivals, Steve Veres, raised the issue at a recent forum in Sherman Oaks, asking how Knox would “manage the conflict of interest.” Knox, who is also an attorney, replied that he would present any possible issues to city lawyers and get their advice on whether he should recuse himself.
“If you must recuse yourself from time to time … the city attorney tells you exactly what to do, and you obey it. That’s exactly how I’ll handle it,” Knox said.
Doing so could mean that Knox would be unable to weigh in on key decisions facing the city. The candidate said he couldn’t speculate on how often that might happen, since the question of whether a conflict exists would depend on the specific facts of each situation.
“I’d expect every two or three years where a collective bargaining agreement comes up, I would certainly go to the city attorney well ahead of time and say, ‘What should I do?’” Knox said. In other cases, “I don’t want to get into speculating as to what the city attorney’s going to tell me.”
"I am firmly committed to making that process as transparent as possible," Knox added. "Whatever I tell the city attorney, I will fully disclose."
This isn’t the first time that Knox has faced such questions. More than five years ago, Knox left a position at the Port of Los Angeles after the city attorney raised concerns about his wife representing the union for port pilots.
At the time, a harbor department spokesman said Knox had left to avoid worries about “a perceived potential conflict.” But Knox said Friday that those issues were “completely peripheral” to his decision to move to a similar position at the Department of Water and Power.
Instead, Knox said he left chiefly to join David Freeman, who had served on the port board and later became general manager of the DWP.
Besides the unions that represent city firefighters and port pilots, the firm Garfield works for has also represented other labor groups active in city politics, including the county labor federation -- an organization that represents more than 300 unions across the county -- and UNITE HERE Local 11, the hotel workers union that helped push for a wage boost for workers at large hotels.
Knox said the legal firm had worked “very infrequently” to advise the labor federation on its federation status when it was led by Maria Elena Durazo, and "never in relation to city business." He was unsure if it would continue to do so under new leader Rusty Hicks.
As for UNITE HERE, Knox said the firm used to represent a UNITE HERE trust fund that helped workers get access to legal services for divorces, child custody and other issues, but would no longer do so in the near future because another firm had gotten that contract.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said that if Knox were elected, there could be "gray area" for him in cases in which his wife's union clients take a stand on a city policy but don't have a financial interest at stake.
“My inclination is to say that he can’t recuse himself from every vote where a client of his wife is taking a position, because that would almost nullify his representation of that district,” she said. Feng said Knox should nonetheless acknowledge the work his wife does before voting on any such issues. “Disclosure is the right antidote."
“The potential for conflict is a legitimate issue,” said Dan Schnur, executive director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the USC. “But his willingness to recuse himself is a legitimate response.
"It’s up to the voters of the district to decide whether it’s a good or a bad thing to have a representative with these types of ties." Schnur said. "If you’re a strong supporter of public employee unions, you might see this as an added benefit. But if you’re a skeptic, then you could see this as a real problem whether he casts votes or not.”
Fourteen candidates are running to represent the district, where Councilman Tom LaBonge will be termed out this summer. Some argue the possible conflict poses a disadvantage for Knox.
"The voters of this district deserve an independent councilmember where there aren’t any issues with conflicts of interest, regardless of how they play out," said Carolyn Ramsay, a former aide to LaBonge who is running for the seat.
The primary election is March 3. If no candidate wins outright, the top two will head to a runoff election in May.
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