The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted Friday to conduct a hearing that will determine if City Councilman Hal Bernson violated the law by using so-called officeholder funds to buy season tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
The commission's decision comes the same week that the City Council defended the controversial officeholder accounts, asking voters to override a state initiative that lowered the contribution and spending limit on the accounts from $75,000 a year to $10,000.
The hearing is expected to be watched closely by elected officials who are likely to spend officeholder money more carefully if Bernson is found guilty and fined heavily.
The Feb. 3 hearing will proceed much like a trial, with ethics staff acting as the prosecution and the five-member commission acting as judge and jury.
If the commission finds Bernson guilty, he could be fined up to $5,000.
Neal Papiano, Bernson's attorney, argued that the ethics laws are vague and rely on an interpretation by elected officials.
"The issue is what is the interpretation. What is the intent," Papiano said.
The case will mark the first time an elected official has been brought to a hearing before the Ethics Commission since the panel was created in 1990. Several other cases have been settled before a hearing was held.
Neither side disputes the fact that Bernson spent $1,140 on tickets for the 1995 season. What is in dispute is whether the purchase violates ethics laws that say officeholder money can only to be used to support governmental activities related to communicating or serving constituents.
The hearing will begin two months before voters will be asked to retain a $75,000 annual spending limit on the officeholder funds of city elected officials.
Voters lowered the spending limit to $10,000 per year by approving Proposition 208, a sweeping finance reform measure. The council voted Wednesday to put a measure on the ballot, asking voters to keep the limit at $75,000.
Craig Holman, co-author of Proposition 208 and project director of the Center for Governmental Studies, has already cited the Bernson case as evidence that the funds are widely misused and that the $10,000 limit should be retained.
Officeholder accounts are funded by contributions from supporters and lobbyists.
Bernson has said the ticket purchase was a contribution to a civic organization--the Los Angeles Philharmonic--which is allowed by ethics laws. He has also argued that he attends the concerts to communicate with his constituents in a relaxed setting.
But an independent hearing officer ruled last month that there is "probable cause" to bring Bernson to a hearing for the purchase of the tickets with funds from his officeholder account.
The hearing officer, Pamela Albers, an Avalon-based attorney, ruled that in order to claim a donation, Bernson would have had to deduct the actual cost of the entertainment benefit he received. He did not, she said.
After Albers' ruling, the Ethics Commission had the choice of presiding over a hearing itself or asking an administrative law judge to hear the matter. In either case, the commission would impose the fine if Bernson is found guilty.
Papiano told the Ethics Commission he wants the panel to preside over the case because he fears an outside judge won't understand the intent of the ethics laws.
Papiano said he plans to defend Bernson by showing that the councilman bought the tickets based on advice from expert lawyers who said the purchase was legal.
He said he will also call on witnesses who were Bernson's guests at the concerts to testify that the councilman discussed city business during the concerts. Papiano declined to identify any of the witnesses.
"If the law allows you to use the money to take someone out to dinner, why can't you take them to the Hollywood Bowl?" Papiano asked. "Is it because someone is singing?"