Illegal City Campaign Gifts Slip By Because of Lack of Enforcement Funds
A voter-approved Los Angeles law aimed at curbing the influence of major campaign contributors has never received enough money to enforce it, and illegal gifts have made their way to candidates as a result, officials said Tuesday.
The insufficient funding has caused a backlog of campaign audits in the city clerk’s office. Because of the backlog, City Clerk Elias Martinez said Tuesday that at least two candidates in the 1987 city elections escaped possible criminal prosecution for receiving illegal contributions.
The law in question is a City Charter amendment approved by voters in 1985 that sets a $500 ceiling on campaign gifts to City Council candidates and $1,000 for citywide candidates. Candidates who knowingly accept gifts exceeding the limit are subject to criminal prosecution and could be sentenced to as much as six months in jail if convicted.
The original law, however, had a statute of limitations of one year from the time of the contribution.
Recently completed audits by Martinez’s office have found contributions exceeding the limit to 1987 council candidates Pat Russell, an incumbent who was defeated, and Councilman Robert Farrell. Assistant City Atty. Charles Goldenberg said the audit showed no evidence of criminal intent on the part of either candidate, but that in any case, prosecution would be impossible because of the statute of limitations.
In Farrell’s case, city attorneys said, about $5,400 was contributed in violation of the limit. Farrell said Tuesday that he will soon hold a fund-raiser so he can return the disputed contributions. Russell’s contributions violating the limit amounted to about $38,000, city attorneys said. Russell, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, was quoted by the Herald-Examiner as saying the figure was “wildly inaccurate.”
Martinez said the city elections this spring could add to the auditing backlog as scores of candidates vie for eight City Council seats and three citywide offices, including the mayor’s.
Goldenberg, noting that no one has been criminally prosecuted under the 1985 law, acknowledged that it is difficult to prove that anyone intentionally received an illegal contribution. But he was optimistic that changes in the law approved by voters in 1987 will make future violations prosecutable.
The 1987 changes extended the criminal statute to two years and introduced a civil penalty mechanism that has a four-year statute of limitations.
Use of Employees
The audit by the city clerk’s office is an essential part of enforcement. Under the law, the clerk’s office must review each candidate’s contributions statement before prosecution on an illegal campaign gift can begin. The audit determines whether an individual gave more than allowed or if, for example, a major contributor has circumvented the contribution limit through the use of employees or affiliated companies.
In 1987, the first year the contributions limit law was applied, Martinez put in a budget request for 13 auditors to review the 1987 election reports. City records show that Mayor Tom Bradley agreed to only seven auditors and that the City Council reduced that to three.
Ironically, the council’s action was based on the theory that voters a few months later would approve the change in the criminal statute of limitations to relieve the pressure on the city clerk. While that is expected to improve enforcement of the law in subsequent elections, it is of little help for auditing the 1987 contests.
“I don’t think anyone raised the issue” of what to do about the 1987 elections, said Martinez’s chief deputy, J. Michael Carey, adding that that included himself.
Martinez, added, “I don’t think there’s any question a one-year statute can’t be complied with, given three (auditors).”
The city attorney’s office did not warn the council that a prosecution might be jeopardized--as it apparently has been--unless Martinez received a larger auditing staff to review the 1987 campaign reports.