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Watchdog Group Says Bernson Illegally Uses 1994 Campaign Funds

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson has raised $177,525 and spent $119,000 on his possible bid for lieutenant governor in 1994, a campaign that a political watchdog group charges violates state and local campaign fund-raising laws.

A spokesman for California Common Cause said Friday that the group will call on the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and City Atty. James K. Hahn to investigate the expenditures, which the group believes circumvent campaign spending limits. Common Cause Executive Director Walter Zelman is scheduled to announce details of the accusations Monday morning outside Los Angeles City Hall.

Bernson replied that he is being wrongfully attacked by Common Cause, which he described as “a liberal Democratic group,” because he is a Republican.

Zelman “goes around making these allegations, and he has yet to come up with anything,” Bernson said. “This is just another in a series of Mr. Zelman flailing out at me.”

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Under state law, Bernson can legally solicit up to $1,000 per donor for a state race as long as he does not spend the money to campaign for local office. City laws, which govern Bernson’s council reelection campaigns, impose a $500-per-donor limit.

Bolster Standing

Common Cause contends that Bernson is using his state campaign funds to make contributions to charitable groups and other organizations in his north San Fernando Valley district, bolstering his political standing as a council member.

“If he was serious about running for lieutenant governor, he would be spending his money in Modesto and not Northridge,” said Mark Haarar, Common Cause assistant executive director. “This proves that this is nothing but an opportunity to forgo city campaign laws.”

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Bernson said it is important to build local support for a possible statewide race.

“We are dealing with people both in and out of the district, and certainly there are people in the district who would be supporters of this campaign,” Bernson said. “The key is not necessarily where the money is spent, but that it is spent in connection with people who are inclined to be supporters.”

Bernson’s committee for the lieutenant governor’s race has given $10,440 in contributions to charitable, community and civic organizations, largely in the Valley, including $1,000 each to Avohot Shalom of Northridge and the North Valley YMCA. Smaller donations were given to several Los Angeles Police Department charities, the Chatsworth Historical Society, the Valley Prayer Breakfast group and the Tri-Chamber of Commerce in Northridge.

Campaign financial disclosure statements show that expenditures also included $7,680 to pay for 32 “dinners with supporters” at such upscale Valley restaurants as the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks. The most expensive meal paid for by the committee was a $1,638 tab at Cafe Como in Northridge for “dinner with City Council members and community leaders.”

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This is the second request by Common Cause for an official review of the finances of Bernson’s campaign for lieutenant governor.

In March, two months after Bernson’s committee began soliciting money, Zelman charged that the councilman had violated state laws by not clearly disclosing that the purpose of a February fund-raising dinner was to support Bernson’s aspirations for statewide office.

That accusation could not be substantiated and a review of the finances did not reveal any illegalities, a spokeswoman for the Fair Political Practices Commission said Friday.

Most of the donations to the “Bernson for Lt. Governor 1994" campaign have come from Valley and Los Angeles developers, construction firms, real estate professionals and lawyers, campaign disclosure statements show.

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Bernson is chairman of the City Council’s powerful Planning and Environment Committee, which regulates development and land-use issues throughout the city. He retained that position for another two years in the recent council reorganization that renamed the panel the Planning and Land Mangement Committee as of Monday.

Bernson used the largest chunk of the money for the lieutenant governor campaign to pay $43,500 for the Feb. 22 fund-raiser at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, a $500-a-plate dinner to which he invited many developers and lobbyists who may come before his committee.

The dinner profits allowed him to hire consultants, including $5,122 to Paul Clarke, who is managing Bernson’s lieutenant governor committee, campaign disclosure statements show.

Clarke is also political and public relations consultant to Porter Ranch Development Co., which is seeking permission to build one of the largest commercial and residential developments in city history on the slopes of Porter Ranch in Chatsworth. That proposal is slated to come before Bernson’s council committee in August.

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