Editorial

Taser campaign contributions to Councilman Mitch Englander raise questions

There's the letter of the law and there's the spirit of the law. The donations made by Taser International employees to Councilman Mitch Englander while the company was seeking to sell body cameras for use by L.A. police officers may not have been technically illegal. But they certainly appear to have run contrary to the spirit of the city's campaign finance laws.

Los Angeles voters in 2011 approved Measure H, which barred bidders on city contracts from making contributions to candidates for city offices. At the time, proponents argued that taxpayers needed to ensure that city services “aren't auctioned off to the biggest campaign donors.” And the rules seemed straightforward: Once companies submitted a bid for a contract worth $100,000 or more, they would be prohibited from making donations to or raising money for city candidates.

But there are loopholes in the law.

Last year, while the Los Angeles Police Department was field-testing body cameras made by Taser and another company before deciding which model should be bought, Taser executives and their families donated $8,400 to Englander. The contributions were all dated June 7, 2014, which was when Englander was holding a fundraiser in the Phoenix area, where Taser is based. Englander, who heads the City Council's Public Safety Committee, had already been a vocal proponent of body cameras and had written a September 2013 motion urging the LAPD to work with Taser on a test of the equipment.

Yet the donations do not appear to have violated the contribution ban. Why? Because in 2014, the LAPD was engaging in a “competitive evaluation” of the equipment before purchase; it was not in the midst of a formal bid process that would have triggered the ban. Englander argues that when Taser made the contributions, there was no plan to spend taxpayer funds on the body cameras; rather, the expectation was that Police Commission President Steve Soboroff would raise private money so that the nonprofit Police Foundation could buy several hundred cameras. The city didn't commit to buying cameras with taxpayer funds until several months later — December 2014 — when Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that L.A. would buy cameras for every officer in the field.

Still, Taser was already competing to sell its product for use by the LAPD, and Englander, as chairman of the Public Safety committee, was essentially overseeing the city's experiment with body cameras. Their actions cast a pall over what has now metamorphosed into a $31-million contract with Taser that was not bid out competitively.

The Ethics Commission should investigate whether Taser crossed the line. And if it didn't, the commission or the voters ought to redraw the line to make clear that companies competing to sell products to the city shouldn't be funding political campaigns.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 23, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Taser's iffy donations" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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