An aficionado of modern art, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs recently attended an exhibition by sculptor Richard Serra in Bilbao, Spain, but he didn't want to pay the air fare out of his own pocket.
So Wachs did what many council members do when traveling abroad: He tapped a special political fund for the trip.
As did Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg for a recent trip to China, and Councilwoman Laura Chick, who traveled to Mexico.
Indeed, almost all of the city's 18 elected officials have used their political "officeholder accounts" for expensive meals, gifts, flowers, travel and other perks. In total, 17 of the elected officials spent $640,328 last year from their officeholder accounts.
The problem, critics of the practice say, is that most of the officeholder accounts are filled with political contributions from powerful lobbyists and businesspeople seeking the elected officials' vote on contracts and permits.
Craig Holeman, executive director of the Californians for Political Reform Coalition, said it is outrageous that elected city officials are essentially taking foreign trips and expensive meals on the tab of lobbyists wanting their votes for clients.
"That is just lobbyist money providing entertainment for an elected official, for their personal benefit," Holeman said. "That's what I would consider to be a legal bribe."
Born nine years ago out of political compromise, the city officeholder account law has sparked heated debate ever since, with some reformers calling for the accounts to be abolished and politicians saying that they need the funds to help them serve their constituents.
Voters have twice approved severe limits on officeholder accounts, but the courts have blocked enforcement of the restrictions. A stricter set of rules governing the accounts took effect Thursday in Los Angeles.
Some, like Holeman and Los Angeles Ethics Commissioner Art Mattox, want to ban the accounts altogether, saying that they serve no useful purpose.
"My personal opinion is they should be eliminated," Mattox said. "We need the council members making decisions that are in the best interest of all people, rather than just a particular faction that contributes to them."
Chick said she went to Mexico for a Spanish immersion course that will help her serve constituents. Goldberg went to China for fact-finding discussions with Chinese electric utility officials.
Goldberg says she does not accept lobbyist money, but she does take contributions from city employee unions and firms that are doing business with the city.
Wachs said he was representing the city and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art at an exhibition of sculptures by Serra, a New York artist, and taxpayers should be glad they did not have to foot the bill.
"I never, ever charge foreign trips to the taxpayers," Wachs said. "I just don't think it's good going off to Europe at the expense of the taxpayers."
Wachs used his officeholder account during the past year for more than $8,000 in meals at restaurants such as Cafe Pinot and Musso and Frank in Los Angeles, Zafferano in London and Ste Mamsouria in Paris.
Although 65% of the contributions to his officeholder account last year came from lobbyists, city employee unions and firms doing business with the city, Wachs said there is no quid pro quo.
"After 28 years on the City Council, [people] know I've been as independent as anybody has been here," he said.
Others agree that the funds are not cause for concern. The accounts give elected city officials who face budget constraints a pot of discretionary funds to help them serve and communicate with their constituents, supporters say.
"It provides a certain flexibility for the council members to lead, to solve problems in the community," said Xandra Kayden, president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.
Kayden served in 1989 as executive director of a city commission formed to draft new ethics laws after a series of scandals involving then-Mayor Tom Bradley's personal finances.
The panel proposed sweeping reforms that included limits on the use of campaign funds that had previously been widely spent for the personal benefit of elected officials.
But the commission had to strike a deal to get the council to put the reforms on the ballot, Kayden said. Council members demanded that the package be linked to a 40% pay raise for the council and the explicit authority to keep officeholder accounts.
"They weren't really a reform. They were a legislative compromise," said Rebecca Avila, executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
Few Rules Set in the Beginning
The rules established at the time were few. Elected officials could raise up to $25,000 in political contributions annually to pay for expenses associated with their holding government office.
The accounts were to be used to send mailers to constituents on city issues, to take fact-finding trips that help council members do their jobs, to support charitable groups, to send flowers and gifts on special occasions, and to pay for cell phones and office equipment that the city budget did not provide for.
Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said the city-funded budgets for constituent services are sufficient. Miscikowski is the only elected official in Los Angeles who has chosen not to set up a political officeholder account. "She has never been personally persuaded to think one is absolutely necessary," said Glenn Barr, a spokesman for Miscikowski.
In November 1996, state voters approved Proposition 208, which set a $10,000 annual fund-raising cap on officeholder accounts.
The Los Angeles City Council quickly put a measure on the April 1997 city ballot to restore the $75,000 cap. Los Angeles voters rejected it.
But a lawsuit was filed against Proposition 208 by the state Democratic and Republican parties and other political groups. A federal judge blocked enforcement of the law pending a determination of whether it is constitutional.
Two years later, the courts have not yet decided that question, and the measure remains in abeyance, said Holeman, who co-authored Proposition 208.
"There is a reason lobbyists give to them," he said. "It's as close to a quid pro quo for votes on policies and contracts that you can get."
With the state measure bogged down in courts, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission concluded that more safeguards were needed. A second wave of city restrictions was approved by the commission and the City Council.
The new rules reduce the limit on individual contributions to $500 from $1,000, eliminate entertainment as an allowable expense and provide a more detailed list of things the accounts can be used for.
Councilman Mike Feuer has twice proposed banning lobbyist contributions to officeholder accounts, but his proposal has not been approved by the City Council. He and others say the new rules do not go far enough.
Los Angeles' officeholder account rules are in some ways stricter than those of other jurisdictions. Los Angeles County supervisors can accept contributions up to $1,000 from individuals, with an overall fund-raising and spending cap of $75,000 per year. But they are banned from taking lobbyist contributions in their officeholder accounts.
San Francisco has outlawed officeholder accounts, but has less stringent rules on spending from regular campaign accounts, allowing elected officials to use money for some expenses paid for in other cities by officeholder accounts. Neither New York nor Chicago allows officeholder accounts, but both permit regular campaign accounts to pay for city-related travel and meals.
For countywide officeholders in Orange County, the maximum yearly individual contribution is $1,000, but there is an overall cap on fund-raising and spending, and no ban on lobbyist contributions.
There is no provision in the law in Ventura County that allows officials elected countywide to have an officeholder account separate from their campaign committee.
Donors Expect Better Access
Around Los Angeles City Hall, lobbyists say they expect to get better access to elected officials by giving to the accounts.
"The people who give do have a vested interest. They want access," said lobbyist Rick Taylor. "Making a contribution hopefully endears you to the elected official."
Still, Taylor, who represents clients needing city permits, including the Getty Center and the Motion Picture and Television Fund, said the complaints about undue influence are misguided, especially given the $500 limit on contributions.
"You are not buying anybody for that," he said.
The opportunity to get access remains a powerful lure, however.
The host committee list for an officeholder fund-raiser for Chick last month read like a who's who of the city lobbyist corps.
Prominent City Hall lobbyists who co-hosted the Chick fund-raiser included Brad Rosenheim, Carol Schatz, Ken Spiker, Billie Greer, Pamela Anderson, S. David Cobb, Fred Gaines, Darlene Kuba, Maureen Kindel, Richard Lichtenstein and Joseph Cerrell.
Wachs' disclosure forms, which frequently are among the most detailed of any city official, show that he spent $32,560 in officeholder account funds last year, with the largest share, $8,050, going to meals. He spent officeholder funds last year on trips to New York, London, Paris and Istanbul for meetings on arts and planning issues.
Overall, a 1997 Ethics Commission report on officeholder accounts found that the city's 18 elected officials spent $154,499 on literature and postage, $56,000 on campaign contributions to others, $51,163 on meals and $28,535 on travel during a 21-month period.
The Ethics Commission fined City Councilman Hal Bernson $1,500 in 1997 for using his officeholder account to buy season tickets to the Hollywood Bowl. Bernson contended that the expense was legal, saying that he took constituents to the concerts, where they discussed city business.
Council President John Ferraro spent thousands on meals last year, including $137 for dinner at Chasens. Ferraro used his officeholder account for a $5,100 holiday party at the Kawada Hotel and for $1,525 in gifts from Nordstrom for his staff.
$100,000 Given to Fight Charter
Ferraro raised eyebrows two months ago by providing $100,000 from his officeholder account for the unsuccessful campaign against a new City Charter on the June 8 ballot. One exemption to the $75,000 spending cap is money provided as political contributions to others.
Councilman Mike Hernandez spent $550 to pay Ethics Commissions fines involving his campaign account. Councilmen Richard Alatorre and Rudy Svorinich Jr. spent thousands of dollars from their accounts for legal fees involving disputes with enforcement agencies. Alatorre spent the most last year of any elected official, $114,530. Mayor Richard Riordan spent the second-largest amount, $76,468.
While council members say the trips, meals and other expenses are part of their service as elected officials, some are ambivalent about the accounts.
"Are they necessary? No," Wachs said. "Are they helpful? Yes. Could I do without it? Yes. But we have to play by the rules and as long as they are allowed I would be at a disadvantage not to use them."
Although Wachs said the same people who contribute to the funds give to campaign reelection accounts, the councilman said he would not stand in the way of additional restrictions.
"If there was a proposal to ban lobbyist contributions to officeholder and campaign accounts," he said, "I would vote for it in two seconds."
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Who and How Much
Here is a list of Los Angeles' 18 elected city officials, the amounts they raised and spent in 1998 and the sum retained in their political office-holder accounts at the end of last year.