Huntington Park councilwoman's fundraising business is a test of conflict of interest laws

The way a small-town politician used her relationship with city contractors to draw income could pose an important test of the state’s conflict of interest laws, good-government experts said.

Huntington Park Councilwoman Karina Macias raised money for a 2015 state Assembly candidate who never actually filed to run, and she was paid a commission based on a percentage of the total. The district attorney’s office launched a review of Macias’ commission and her votes as a councilwoman after a Times article that revealed the arrangement.

Experts said last week that if the practice is found to be legal, or is otherwise permitted, it would provide public officials a loophole they could potentially use for self-enrichment.

Macias raised money from people linked to companies that were awarded contracts by Macias and Huntington Park's council majority. Those included the city’s bus service and dial-a-ride operator, its street sweeping and bus stop maintenance vendor and a towing company.

According to Macias, she informed these people that, if they contributed, she would receive a commission. In prior interviews with The Times, she could not give an example of someone who contributed and was not connected to a city contractor. She was paid $6,800 total for her fundraising work.

Macias has denied that the commission in any way influenced her votes on contracts.

There are two main conflict of interest laws on the state’s books that might apply to Macias’ situation. A violation of the law known as the Political Reform Act, which makes it illegal to cast votes that financially benefit sources of income, could mean a possible misdemeanor or an administrative fine.

One question that could arise is whether, under the Political Reform Act, the money paid to Macias qualifies as income derived from the contributors or from the state Assembly campaign. If it’s found to be the latter, Macias could be legally in the clear.

But under the other law, elected officials are broadly prohibited from being financially interested in contracts made by their agencies, and violations can be prosecuted as felonies.

Steve Cooley, the former L.A. County district attorney who created the office’s public integrity division, said Macias’ commission and votes could have violated the more serious felony conflict of interest law.

The essential question for prosecutors, Cooley said, is whether Macias structured a “quid pro quo” deal.

If the district attorney's office files criminal charges, it would “send a message” that “this is a no-fly zone. Don’t go there,” Cooley said.

But if Macias is prosecuted for the violation and ends up being exonerated, Cooley said, that could give a license to politicians who are inclined to make decisions for their own financial gain.

“That would be a green light to some who are so motivated by their own individual circumstances,” he said.

Hector De La Torre, a former state assemblyman who also served on the South Gate City Council, said there’s always been a subset of politicians looking to profit from their elected positions. And he said if Macias’ business practice is deemed legal, the state Legislature needs to step in.

“I think it should be clarified that there’s an expectation of recusal,” De La Torre said.

Jessica Levinson, a government ethics professor at Loyola Law School, said such a precedent might encourage ill-disposed politicians in places where fewer people are paying attention. That would include relatively small cities and scores of often obscure agencies that make up the patchwork of governments in places like L.A.

Bob Stern, who coauthored the Political Reform Act, said that if there is a determination that what Macias did is aboveboard, then it would be clear that the Huntington Park councilwoman had found a loophole in the law he helped write.

In that scenario, Stern said, it would be up to Sacramento politicians to fix it.

“If they decide there is no violation” of the Political Reform Act, Stern said, “then the act should be changed.”

Adam.Elmahrek@latimes.com

Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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