In its short, five-year life, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission has gained a reputation as a feisty little agency willing to take on all comers in the quest for cleaner and more open city government. But the commission's awkward dismissal last week of executive director Ben Bycel raises serious questions, not the least of which is whether an agency that voters expect to be an aggressive watchdog is tempering its independence in a bid for better inter-government relations.
Under Bycel, the commission's first director, the commission built a reputation for toughness through vigorous enforcement of laws on city campaign financing, gifts and and lobbying. That won him praise in some quarters and, predictably, generated consternation in others.
Raquelle de la Rocha, the Ethics Commission president and a Riordan Administration appointee, first caused public doubts through comments she made before Bycel's ouster. For example, she expressed concern about his strained relations with other government agencies, including the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state ethics panel on which she once served.
It's common knowledge that Bycel is no favorite of FPPC officials and that the enmity goes back at least to a 1993 dispute stemming from a government investigation of alleged money laundering by Evergreen America Inc. The company was fined a record $895,000. The FPPC and the district attorney's office accused Bycel of leaking information on the case to the press, an accusation he has denied.
We have said it before: As the city Ethics Commission president, De la Rocha has a right to replace Bycel and pursue rapprochement with agencies that have reportedly been alienated by Bycel's tactics. But for all the furor, Bycel has served Los Angeles well, and his departure leaves many wondering. Will Los Angeles have an ethics panel that will seek to ruffle fewer feathers? More to the point, will the next director be so busy trying to get along with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the district attorney, the city attorney and the mayor's office that he or she will fail to look out for the best interests of the people?