Lobbyist faces fine after inviting L.A. politicians to his $51,000 birthday party downtown

A longtime lobbyist faces a proposed fine of more than $11,000 for inviting dozens of Los Angeles city officials to a birthday party.

A Los Angeles City Ethics Commission investigation found that John Ek violated city rules that restrict gifts from lobbyists to city officials when he hosted a 50th birthday party for himself at a downtown bistro two years ago.

Ek paid more than $51,000 for the invitation-only event at Perch Los Angeles, which included food, an open bar and musical entertainment and drew roughly 250 guests. He invited 37 city officials to the party, including the members of the Los Angeles City Council, the controller and the mayor, according to the investigation.

Under city rules, registered lobbyists are barred from offering or giving gifts to elected officials. They are also prohibited from giving them to other city officials — those who are not elected — if they are seeking to influence decisions in their agencies. City officials are also prohibited from accepting such donations, according to the Municipal Code.

The Ethics Commission report did not identify which city officials ultimately attended the party, but indicated those attendees had reimbursed Ek for their share of the party expenses — $205.06 each — after being contacted by investigators. By reimbursing Ek, a commission report stated, the city officials were “negating acceptance of the gift.”

Among the partygoers was City Councilman Mitch Englander, who was photographed alongside Ek at the event two years ago. A blog on local politics, Mayor Sam’s Sister City, published the photo and dubbed the event the “LA Power Broker Party of the Weekend.” Englander later reimbursed the lobbyist, his spokeswoman Stephanie Saporito said.

City Councilwoman Nury Martinez also attended the party and reimbursed Ek, according to her spokesman Adam Bass. He said that Martinez knew attending the event amounted to a gift and had paid Ek back without being notified by the commission staff.

Ethics Commission staffers did not answer questions Thursday for information about who else had attended the event. Agency employees generally do not comment to the media on their investigations, which are supposed to be conducted confidentially under the City Charter.

Representatives for Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin and council members Herb Wesson, Mike Bonin, Bob Blumenfield, Gil Cedillo, Joe Buscaino, Jose Huizar, Paul KrekorianPaul Koretz  and Mitch O’Farrell said Thursday that those elected officials did not go to the event two years ago.

A spokeswoman for City Councilman Curren Price said he did not recall attending either. The birthday party occurred on May 30, 2015, shortly before current council members David Ryu and Marqueece Harris-Dawson took office. Neither of them attended the event, according to their aides. 

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said she didn’t understand why the commission would not indicate which city officials had attended and accepted an improper gift.

“It’s not at all clear to me what legitimate interest there is in hiding it from the public,” Clark said. “If one person made a mistake, maybe you don’t need new training. But if it’s a substantial number of folks, that sounds like a systemic problem.”

Ek, who has been registered as a city lobbyist for more than two decades, referred requests for an interview Thursday to his spokesman Robert Alaniz. “Although we’d like to respond to your inquiry, it would be totally inappropriate to comment before the Commission has had an opportunity to convene and act,” Alaniz said in response to questions.

The Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by city officials, is scheduled to vote next week on the proposed fine. Earlier this month, Ek signed an agreement to pay a proposed penalty of $11,380.83 for the violations, which represents half of the maximum possible fine.

Investigators stated that the lower fine “takes into consideration the serious nature of the violations while also encouraging cooperation with the Ethics Commission investigations.” Ek, who has no previous fines from the Ethics Commission, had assisted investigators by providing documents that showed who had attended and how much the event cost, the staffers wrote.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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