Prominent members of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, including Mayor Tom Bradley, have collected close to $600,000 in political contributions in recent years from consulting firms or employees of firms doing business with the commission.
The contributions are flowing at a time of intense business activity. The commission already has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to design and build the county's new commuter rail system, and is positioning itself to award billions more in the years ahead.
Several commissioners or their surrogates, through what some critics contend are weaknesses in conflict-of-interest statutes, have voted repeatedly to award contracts to political donors.
In the case of Bradley, and of City Councilman Michael Woo, some contributions from transit contractors were quickly returned when a reporter questioned them.
The money reaching commissioners has come from businesses or employees of businesses that have won contracts for engineering and design work, bond consulting, legal advice, insurance management and other professional services.
Nearly two-thirds of the money--$398,677--went to the committees of the commissioner who has needed to raise the most money in recent years--mayor and former gubernatorial candidate Bradley. Other commissioners who have solicited and received large contributions from the agency's contractors include members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council.
While the vast majority of the contributions and votes were within the law, The Times has found that the state's Political Reform Act, which imposes special anti-favoritism requirements on commissioners and contractors, has not always been diligently observed.
Records show at least two members, Bradley and Woo, may have run afoul of the law last year because they personally participated in decisions to award business to some of their large contributors. As a result of questions posed by The Times, Bradley has ordered nearly $17,000 in political contributions returned to commission contractors. Woo, who like Bradley said the errors were inadvertent, was considering ordering $6,100 returned to commission contractors.
Commissioners are prohibited by law from voting on contracts from which large contributors could benefit. John Larson, chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said the Bradley and Woo votes had not yet been investigated. Larson said that returning the money does not automatically clear the mayor and the councilman of potential violations.
Spokesmen for several contractors said the firms or their employees normally donate in response to solicitations from members of the commission. But they said they make donations for broad philosophical reasons, often in the commissioners' other capacities--may-or, city council member or county supervisor, for example.
Large Spending Plans
Nonetheless, how existing anti-favoritism statutes are being observed and whether new procedures and regulations are needed takes on special importance for the commission. As the chief authority in the development of the county's multibillion-dollar mass transit system, it is in the center of one of the largest programs of public works contracts in state history.
The commission currently is building the Long Beach-to-Los Angeles and Century Freeway trolley lines at a cost of more than $1 billion. It also is planning to build additional lines in the San Fernando Valley, the South Bay and East Los Angeles and is a major funding partner for the Southern California Rapid Transit District's $3.4-billion Metro Rail subway.
The 11-member commission, formed by the Legislature in the mid-1970s to coordinate bus systems and highway and transit projects, includes the five members of the county Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles mayor and council members from Los Angeles, Long Beach and other cities. The commission has enhanced its power in recent years by tightening its grasp on the region's transportation purse strings, chiefly through its allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars generated annually by a special half-penny county sales tax dedicated to transit.
And this week, the commission is considering one of its boldest steps yet--forming a wholly controlled subsidiary that would combine construction of the trolley lines and the RTD's Metro Rail subway. The RTD would be allowed to complete the first subway leg now being built from downtown to MacArthur Park but would give up supervision of any extentions to the commission.
With such billions at stake, public advocacy groups say the mere appearance of conflict should be avoided. Robert Stern, co-director of the nonprofit California Commission on Campaign Finance and a former state FPPC attorney who helped draft the current anti-favoritism law, said: "The spirit of the law was that people serving on these boards should not be soliciting contributions from those before them. These board and commissions were not to be moneymakers for campaigns."
The law Stern refers to was adopted by the Legislature in 1982 and amended in 1984 in the wake of a major political fund-raising scandal involving members of the California Coastal Commission, who were soliciting donations from developers whose permit applications were pending before the panel.
Under the law, members of multi-agency boards, such as the Transportation Commission, must disqualify themselves from voting on permits, licenses or consulting contracts involving parties who have given them $250 or more in political donations in the previous 12 months. The provisions of the law do not apply to low-bid, competitive contracts, where boards and commissions generally have less to say in selecting the winner.
In the Transportation Commission's case, the agency staff has made efforts--some commissioners complain they are inadequate--to alert members about pending contracts that could pose a conflict of interest under the law.
But The Times found that Bradley and Woo had voted for several contributors' contracts last year after memos were sent to their staffs alerting them to the potential of a conflict of interest.
Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Michael Gage said the mayor never got the message.
"I'm just stunned," he said. "What is clear is the staff system here (in Bradley's office) did not work the way it was supposed to."
A spokesman for Woo said some of the commission's warnings were vague and Woo's staff had not followed up. "No one was in charge. . . . It sounds like it's kind of a mess," said Larry Kaplan, Woo's chief deputy.
The law also requires both the commissioner and the contributor to disclose--at commission meetings--relevant donations to commissioners.
"I didn't know that," said Ki Suh Park, managing partner of Gruen Associates, a commission consultant. He said it should have been explained better. The firm has given $7,000 to five commissioners in the last 3 1/2 years, including $2,300 that Bradley is returning because he improperly voted to award a rail study contract to Gruen last year.
Votes by Substitutes
While tough in some areas, the conflict law is loose in others, critics say, particularly when a commissioner sends a substitute to commission meetings. These alternates, even when they are staff aides, are allowed to vote on matters involving contributors who have given to their bosses.
Walter Zelman, executive director of the public interest group Common Cause, said, "The individual serving as an alternate should not vote on those measures where the actual officeholder or commissioner (would be) prohibited from voting, especially when the (alternate) works directly for that individual."
Another concern for some political reform advocates is that the current law requiring commissioners to disqualify applies too narrowly--officially only to those contributors or their agents who are "parties" to the contract. As interpreted by the FPPC, that means the corporations themselves or lobbyists or company representatives directly involved in trying to influence the commission's decision.
Not affected are executives or even partners in those firms who make contributions as individuals, according to the FPPC.
Also not covered are political action committees, or PACs, the contractors set up.
Sources of Funds
Some of the largest consultants to the commission, such as the engineering firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, have both partners who donate to commissioners as individuals and PACs that give separately.
Employees of DMJM or the company PAC contributed a total of more than $28,000 to seven commissioners in the last 3 1/2 years. James N. Bright, DMJM's vice president, said donations by the DMJM PAC, to which employees contribute voluntarily, were "independent of the corporation." He acknowledged, however, that it is he and two other top company executives who decide where the contributions go.
Zelman said this is another loophole in current law. "Common Cause doesn't make much of a distinction," he said. "Whether Arco gives money out of the corporate till or from a PAC of 300, to the recipient it doesn't make a lot of difference."
But rather than tighten the current law, some commissioners want it relaxed. In fact, during the unsuccessful legislative battle last year to set up a super-agency combining the transportation commission and the RTD, the county Board of Supervisors sought to have all voting restrictions removed from the proposed new board.
"It's just a bloody pain in the neck," said Supervisor Deane Dana, who has collected more than $44,000 in contributions from commission contractors or their employees since 1985. "You have to go through everything on the agenda. . . . If you make a mistake and vote (for a contributor), you're nailed to the cross."
Dana said the special restrictions on agencies like the commission should be eliminated.
But Larson of the FPPC said his political watchdog agency strongly opposes efforts to weaken or repeal the restrictions on commissions and boards. With modern computers that track and sort contributions for politicians, the burden of complying with the law is not that great, he said. "It can be done," he said.
Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen contributed to this article.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO TRANSIT PANEL
Here are Los Angeles County Transportation Commission members who received the most in political contributions and the top contributing companies and their employees during the last 3 1/2 years.
Mayor Tom Bradley $398,677
County Supervisor Pete Schabarum $58,350
County Supervisor Deane Dana $44,261
County Supervisor Michael Antonovich $38,975
County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn $25,450
County Supervisor Ed Edelman $10,200
Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo (joined in 1987) $7,300
Bateman, Eichler, Hill, Richards Inc.; bond sales $102,761
Drexel, Burnham, Lambert; bond sales $83,761
Smith, Barney, Harris, Upham & Co.; bond sales $80,000
Parson, Brinkerhoff, Quade & Douglas; design/engineering $36,150
Daniels & Bell Inc.; bond sales $36,000
Daniel, Mann, Johnson, Mendenhall; design/engineering $28,500
Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.; law firm $27,700
First Interstate Bank; bond trustee $14,450
Deloitte Haskins & Sells; management consulting $12,105