Ethics Panel Gives Advice From Picky to Profound : Politics: Commission was created in 1990 to govern the behavior of elected officials. Since then, the rules have grown exponentially.


The fire chief wants to know if it's all right for five of his employees to accept free lodging from a hotel chain. A former aide to a councilman worries about when it will be OK for her to lobby at City Hall. A candidate with a gimmick is confused about how to report campaign funds raised at an auction.

From the nit-picky to the profound, they are all questions that have been put to Ben Bycel, the city of Los Angeles' Ethics Commission chief, in his role as Dear Abby, father-confessor and legal adviser for people trying to steer their way through City Hall's increasingly complex ethics rules.

Some of the queries come from nervous Nellies, others from City Hall players with more substantial problems.

On Thursday, the city's five-member Ethics Commission got a half-inch-thick document containing all the written advice Bycel and his staff sent out to the inquiring public during 1994.

All told, the commission prepared 25 letters last year with the help of the city attorney's office to help explain the city's often unique and frequently complicated campaign finance, lobbyist registration, conflict-of-interest and gift laws, rules and interpretations.

In 1990, voters created the Ethics Commission and rules governing the behavior of elected officials in the wake of controversies stemming from disclosures about Mayor Tom Bradley's private financial dealings.

That was the beginning. Since then the rules have grown exponentially.

Advising his clients about how to work in the city of Los Angeles' political landscape used to be easy--now it's tougher, said attorney Brian Maas, who specializes in helping clients with problems or questions about complying with local, state and federal ethics and campaign finance laws.

"The city ethics law is only about 3 years old and there are still a lot of questions about it," Maas said. "It's an interesting commentary that we have clients who need our help to figure out what their responsibilities are in L.A."

And when Maas, who is based in Sacramento with the firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, doesn't know the answer, he asks the Ethics Commission.

Bycel welcomes the inquiries.

"We are delighted that people are asking questions because it shows that they care about doing the right thing and not running afoul of our law," Bycel said. "Actually, I worry more about the people who don't call and ask questions than those that do."

Some who approach the commission for information and advice seek a formal reply in writing, while others need a quick-fix answer and will take it informally, over the phone.

The commission has one staff member each day who is responsible for answering phone inquiries about the law. "We get anywhere from five to 20 calls a day," said Rebecca Avila, a Bycel aide.

Here's a sampling of some of the situations addressed in the commission's 1994 letters:

* Fire Chief Donald O. Manning wanted to know if it was all right for five of his firefighters to accept free lodging in Hawaii from the Hilton Hotel Corp. in view of the city's limits on employee gift-taking.

The hotel chain wanted to honor the five, who had been injured on duty.

The answer: the employees could take the gift because they were not senior officials in the department covered by the gift limits.

* Katharine Macdonald, a former press deputy to ex-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, wanted to know what the city's laws had to say about her ability to lobby at City Hall.

Macdonald, now an executive at Hill & Knowlton, a PR firm, was told she could not lobby the 5th District council office for one year after leaving that office and that she was permanently barred from lobbying at City Hall on any issue with which she had been "personally or substantially involved" during her tenure in city government.

* Michael Feuer, a current City Council candidate, wanted to know how to report money raised for his campaign through the sale at auction of goods and services.

He was told the value of the goods contributed to his campaign for sale should be reported as in-kind contributions and the amount received at auction for the goods--over and above their market value--should be reported as contributions.

* An employee of Marathon Communications, a well-known lobbying firm, asked if the firm's employees had to report as lobbying activity any contacts they had with city employees.

Marathon employee Angela Romano's letter noted that many of her firm's lobbyists had "long-standing friendships" with city employees.

The answer: "Contacts between Marathon employees and city officials are to be considered lobbying only if there is an attempt made during that contact to influence an item of municipal legislation."

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