When hit two months ago with a $53,522 fine for campaign finance violations, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn turned to his city commissioners as well as City Hall lobbyists and contractors to pay the bill, according to new Ethics Commission records.
Through the Jim Hahn Legal Defense Fund, the mayor was able to raise the entire amount he was fined by the Ethics Commission in September for accepting political contributions in excess of the $1,000 limit and other violations, according to papers he filed with the panel.
City law allows politicians to pay fines from political accounts when the violations are committed by political committees, as they were in Hahn's case. As a result, it's common practice at City Hall for elected officials to use political contributions to cover ethics fines.
The ethics rules for many government agencies, including those at the state level, allow politicians to raise campaign funds to pay fines, according to Jim Knox, executive director of the government watchdog group California Common Cause.
Knox and Miriam Krinsky, former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, are critical of the practice. They said it allows elected officials to escape any personal financial penalty for misconduct and adds to the influence contributors can muster through normal contributions to election campaigns.
"There is a valid concern about the diminishing deterrence if people can go out and fund-raise to pay the fines," said Krinsky, who had asked the panel to consider changing the law before she left it this summer.
However, Robert Stern, executive director of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said he is not bothered that elected officials can raise political contributions to pay fines.
Politicians suffer "bad publicity" when they are fined, Stern noted. He also said that requiring elected officials to pay penalties from their pockets might result in much smaller fines, which could send the wrong impression about the seriousness of the violations.
Hahn's attorney, Ronald Turovsky, said the mayor was acting within his rights: "It is a permissible way to pay for the fine."
The mayor's ethics filing shows that 15 city commissioners appointed by Hahn contributed $1,000 each toward the legal defense fund that paid the fines. They included Airport Commission President Ted Stein, Planning Commissioners Mabel Chang, Mitchell Menzer and Joseph Klein, Police Commissioner Rick Caruso and Fire Commissioner Jay Grodin.
City Hall lobbyists who chipped in $1,000 each include Kuba and Associates and C.S. Davis Co.; contributors with city contracts included construction executive Ronald Tutor and public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard Inc.
Hahn's ethics filing indicated that the contributors helped him raise $56,500 during the three months ending Sept. 30 and that the account paid $53,522 to the city general fund during the period to cover the fines.
"You want your mayor to be able to focus on city business," said Grodin. "It's an unfortunate situation," he said, but helping to pay the fines gets the mayor back to his duties.