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Mayor Returns $45,000 in Questionable Contributions

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who returned thousands of dollars in questionable contributions from Florida donors during the mayoral campaign, has sent back 75 other donations totaling about $45,000.

The returned money included contributions from the same sources that exceeded the legal limit, checks on which donors failed to provide the required identifying information, and thousands of dollars in corporate donations that went over the city’s limit of $900,000 in contributions that do not come from individuals, said Stephen Kaufman, the mayor’s campaign attorney.

These contributions -- all returned in the last three months -- are in addition to $47,000 that Villaraigosa returned in April to employees of two Florida gift-shop companies and their relatives. News reports revealed that some employees could not explain their donations and that one of the companies was considering whether to seek a concessions contract at Los Angeles International Airport.

The day after Villaraigosa announced he would return the checks, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office began an inquiry into whether some of the contributions were laundered. That probe is still pending, along with a review by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, officials said Wednesday.

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The latest returned contributions, nearly one-fifth of which came from out of state, include some that violate city rules that bar related companies from donating more than $1,000.

They include $3,000 from three related companies in Buffalo, N.Y., including CA One Services, which operates a restaurant at LAX. Villaraigosa also returned $2,000 from two related waste-hauling companies in Pico Rivera.

His campaign also returned $1,000 from the wife of a former executive of Fleishman-Hillard, the public relations firm that recently agreed to pay the city $5.7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it overbilled the city.

The Ethics Commission has fined city candidates dozens of times over the years for accepting multiple contributions that exceed $1,000 from related companies, which campaign finance laws view as a single contributor.

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“We are paying tremendous attention to these issues and catching whatever is humanly possible when contributions do not comply with the law,” Kaufman said.

Sometimes, the violations are easy to spot, such as when multiple checks come from different companies with the same address and are signed by the same person.

In other cases, however, it is unclear whether contributors are related.

In some cases, Villaraigosa chose to return checks when his campaign staff could not verify they were in compliance with the law.

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Out-of-state contributors say it is difficult to keep up with what’s legal in some jurisdictions but not in others.

“Although our legal folks try to keep up on the different laws, sometimes things fall through the cracks,” said Wendy Watkins, a spokeswoman for Delaware North Cos. and its subsidiary firms, Sportservice and CA One Services.

The three business entities gave $1,000 each to Villaraigosa on May 10, only to see the mayor return the money.

CA One Services has food and beverage concession contracts at LAX, including the Encounter Restaurant, and Ontario International Airport that run until May 20.

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In 2004, the firm’s LAX concessions had gross sales of $16.3 million.

The business also contributed $1,000 in 2001 to former Mayor James K. Hahn.

“It’s part of our history of being active in the communities we are in,” Watkins said.

Several corporate checks, including one from the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, were returned by Villaraigosa because his campaign exceeded the $900,000 limit on contributions that are not from individuals, Kaufman said.

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By catching potential violations and returning contributions, candidates can avoid being cited for breaking the law, which can result in fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

The Ethics Commission has been aggressive in the last few years fining candidates for excess contribution violations, which Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham said is leading to more active efforts by candidates to avoid violations.

“It’s not surprising to see many contributions returned,” Pelham said. “We are seeing an uptick in people doing due diligence in checking contributions.”


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