When Compton Mayor Aja Brown delivered her first State of the City address last month, the city arranged for residents to watch the event on a big screen at a local gym.
Attendees at the free viewing were offered hot dogs and potato chips. But those who were willing to shell out at least $100 to a local charity were invited to a more exclusive gala at a city-owned community center, where guests were treated to wine, stuffed chicken breast and cheesecake before the mayor's speech.
The beneficiary of that event was a charitable organization founded by the mayor and her husband.
The arrangement has raised eyebrows in the working-class community, where city events don't typically generate such attention. Some members of the City Council have complained that they were kept in the dark about the gala and where the proceeds of the fundraiser were going. Still other city leaders accused the mayor of leveraging city business to raise money for a nonprofit with which she has close ties.
"You are using your public position for self-benefit, indirectly," said Charles Davis, a member of the Compton Unified School Board and a former city clerk. "She's exploiting her position."
The mayor denied that, saying the fundraiser was simply a way to raise money to support worthy causes in a city where finances remain tight.
In a statement released to The Times, Brown said the nonprofit, Urban Vision Community Development Corporation, received $57,665 in donations from the event. Of that total, $30,580 was paid to the city to reimburse it for upfront costs associated with the gala, according to city records. Van Brown, who is listed in state filings as an agent of the nonprofit, said Urban Vision's board donated $5,000 from the event to a youth program at Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum and is looking at other opportunities to support local youth programs.
"Compton, like many cities, has limited funding to support youth enrichment programs," Aja Brown said in her statement. She said she saw "the address as an opportunity to raise money for Compton youth while connecting Compton's Chamber of Commerce and business support organizations with larger companies and stakeholders."
Under state law, elected officials can legally solicit donations for legislative, governmental or charitable purposes.
Jessica Levinson, a clinical law professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said that charities that receive payment at politicians' behest should be scrutinized to ensure they are legitimate.
"You look for certain things, like is it closely associated with the politician or her family," she said. "In this case, yes it is.... The closer the nonprofit is to financially benefiting the politician, the more problematic it is."
Both the mayor and her husband said they have never been paid for their positions with Urban Vision.
There are few public records associated with the nonprofit, which was founded in 2011 to promote economic development in Compton. The organization was exempt from filing taxes for the last two years because it reported to the IRS gross receipts under $50,000.
The mayor, who was listed as a chief executive officer from 2012 to 2014, said the nonprofit operates primarily on donations and volunteers.
For most mayors, State of the City Addresses are not viewed as opportunities to raise money, particularly in smaller cities such as Compton. But Aja Brown's ability to attract a paying audience is a testament to her growing prominence as a political figure.
"She has been a rising, dynamic urban leader," Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A. "She has networked very effectively with a lot of people who are looking at problem-solving in ways that has helped her city."
The July 10 gala drew about 300 business and community leaders from throughout Los Angeles County. About 200 of those attendees were invited guests of the mayor who received free admission, she said. The printed program listed three corporations — aerospace giant Boeing Co., and developers Prism Realty Corp. and the Brickyard — as $5,000 platinum sponsors, which included dinner and drink tickets for 10 guests. Eight sponsors were listed as gold members, which cost $2,500 for five tickets. Individual tickets sold for $100.
Before her State of the City address, Aja Brown moved around a crowded room as guests angled for photos. She stopped at many tables, making small talk.
At the free viewing of the speech at the El Camino College Compton Center gymnasium, as attendees waited more than an hour for the live stream of the address, they entertained themselves by dancing the electric slide and catching up with neighbors. Finally, TV personality Omarosa and the mayor's husband, Van Brown, appeared on a projector screen to announce that the guests would be fed. The party atmosphere calmed as the night wore on. Some attendees said they were expecting to see the mayor's speech in person and were disappointed to have to view the event on a screen with poor picture quality.
Newly seated Councilwoman Emma Sharif was the only council member to attend the gala. The other three council members were in Rancho Bernardo, in San Diego County, at a pre-planned Independent Cities Assn. conference. It was only after the address, they said, that they learned the event benefited a nonprofit organization with connections to the mayor.
In a statement, Aja Brown told The Times to contact Urban Vision for a list of donors. Van Brown declined to provide a list, saying he did not have permission to release it.
Instead, Van Brown, a regional safety director at an oil and gas company, emailed a grainy copy of a $17,500 cashier's check that he said was from the nonprofit's largest contributor: himself.