A watchdog group called on state and city authorities to investigate campaign fund raising by Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, whom they accused Monday of “blatantly violating the spirit, if not the letter” of campaign reform laws.
Walter Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause, criticized the northwest San Fernando Valley Republican for soliciting contributions up to $1,000 for a possible 1994 bid for lieutenant governor.
“All this money is presumably going to be used for a lieutenant governor’s race five years away,” Zelman said. “I don’t think anyone would be a viable candidate five to six years before an election.
“We view this as nothing less than a blatant effort to get around a new state law, which says that in order to raise money you have to state what you are raising it for,” Zelman said.
In addition, Zelman said, the declaration skirts a city law that places a $500 limit on donations to council members.
Under the state law, which was approved by voters in June under Proposition 73, Bernson can legally solicit up to $1,000 from individuals as long as he uses the money to seek a state office and does not spend it on campaigning for city office.
Common Cause opposed Proposition 73, favoring a rival measure that called for public financing of state campaigns.
Numerous calls to Bernson were not returned.
Common Cause’s call for the probe was prompted by a Los Angeles Times report early last month that Bernson had organized a Feb. 22 fund-raiser at the Sheraton Universal Hotel to seek contributions for statewide office.
Bernson, who chairs the council’s powerful Planning and Environment Committee, sent dinner invitations to developers and lobbyists who must come before his panel when seeking approval for their projects, The Times reported.
About 500 people, mainly from Los Angeles, attended the $500-a-plate dinner, giving Bernson about $250,000 to begin testing the political waters “by going around talking to people and conducting surveys,” said Paul Clarke, Bernson’s consultant in the bid for lieutenant governor.
Zelman is calling for the attorney general’s office to investigate whether the dinner invitation clearly stated the purpose of the fund-raiser.
He produced a copy of the return card, which read, “make check payable to: Bernson Committee,” with no description of the nature of the committee.
Clarke said the councilman’s fund-raising efforts are “squeaky clean” and denied that Bernson is attempting to skirt campaign reform laws. Instead, Bernson is complying with the law by declaring his intent to raise funds for a statewide office, Clarke said.
Need for Planning
“Those who plan ahead are the ones who come out winners,” Clarke said, adding that the Common Cause accusations are “little temper tantrums” by a group that is opposed to private financing of political campaigns.
Officials with the Los Angeles city attorney, the state attorney general and the Fair Political Practices Commission were unaware of Common Cause’s accusations and would not comment on them. Officials said that when the complaint is received it will be reviewed to determine if there are grounds for an investigation.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant, was not surprised by Bernson’s early fund-raising efforts, saying the councilman is “playing by the rules.”
“I would not be surprised if more and more people start declaring four to six years ahead of time,” Hoffenblum said. “If you want to raise money, that is the law.”
Common Cause also criticized Bernson for spending thousands of dollars in the past two years on gifts to supporters and community groups. City records show that Bernson spent more than $150,000 in political contributions between June and December of last year on gifts and trips to Hong Kong and Paris.
“We believe Councilman Bernson’s fund-raising practices exhibit a disturbing disregard for the public’s demand for campaign reform,” Zelman said.