It's time for Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson to face the music. An independent hearing officer ruled this month that there is probable cause to bring Bernson to trial on charges that he violated city ethics laws by using his officeholder account to buy tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
Bernson insists that the $1,140 spent on box seats and parking in 1995 was appropriate and has complained in the past that he is being targeted by the city Ethics Commission. The panel will decide next month how to proceed. Bernson could stand trial before an administrative law judge or the commission itself. If found guilty, the Northridge councilman could face a $5,000 fine.
A trial would benefit no one. Bernson should take the honorable course: Admit he was wrong, pay back the $1,140 and be done with it. That's what other City Council members have done when told that certain transactions might violate ethics laws. Fighting the charges only sullies a city government already viewed with suspicion by many of Bernson's constituents.
Over the past year, Bernson has defended his purchase of the tickets by characterizing the expense as a charitable contribution to the Los Angeles Philharmonic or as an opportunity to socialize with constituents in a casual setting. Neither defense stands up, as the hearing officer pointed out in her eight-page ruling.
As anyone who has ever attended a chicken dinner for charity knows, only that portion of the price above and beyond the cost of the meal qualifies as a deductible donation. The same principle applies to Bernson's purchase of the tickets. Although a portion of the price qualifies as a donation to the philharmonic, the bulk pays for the cost of putting on a concert.
Bernson's contention that the box seats allowed him to mingle casually with constituents defies logic. Two of the four seats in the box were held by Airport Commissioner Theodore Stein and his wife, Ellen. Bernson has never offered any evidence that he took a constituent to the concerts or that any city business was discussed. His former attorney promised to reveal those details, but only if the commission dropped its charges against the councilman.
Trust is the foundation of a representative democracy. Right now, too many people distrust the city government--an attitude that springs in part from the slippery extravagances of elected officials like Bernson. Strict ethical guidelines such as those adopted by the council in 1994 help. But they must be obeyed to be effective. Flouting them only galls voters further. Bernson's choice is simple: Dig deep and pay for the tickets.