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Mayoral Rivals Got Illegal Contributions

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Times Staff Writer

In this year’s costly campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, incumbent James K. Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa each received thousands of dollars in political contributions that violated city limits, according to audits released Thursday by the city Ethics Commission.

Villaraigosa, the victor, received $9,250 in excess contributions and Hahn received $11,450. The donations, however, were a tiny fraction of the $14 million the pair spent, and much of the questionable money has since been returned to the contributors, according to representatives of the candidates.

The remaining excess contributions are unlikely to trigger fines for violations under a new policy that waives penalties for minor, unintentional infractions.

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“The mayor made ethics and complying with campaign finance laws a high priority during the campaign, and this audit bears this out,” said Stephen Kaufman, an attorney for Villaraigosa’s campaign.

Villaraigosa took the unusual step during and after the campaign of returning $92,000 in potentially questionable contributions, most of which came from out-of-state donors.

About 75 of the contributions, totaling $45,000, were returned in August after an internal review discovered contributions from individuals and corporations that exceeded the legal limits, and checks that did not have the required identifying information.

Some of those returned contributions were cited in the audit prepared by the Ethics Commission’s staff as being excessive.

City law limits individual campaign contributions to $1,000, but 12 contributions to Villaraigosa, including money from Secure Wrap of Miami Inc. and Global Baggage Protection Systems of Miami, were found to be from duplicate sources, exceeding the limit by $9,250.

The audit does not mention an investigation by the Ethics Commission staff and district attorney’s office into whether $47,000 in contributions to Villaraigosa from employees of two Florida firms -- S.E. Florida Investments and Travel Traders -- and others from out of state may have been illegal.

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Some of the donors had trouble explaining their $1,000 contributions to a city candidate 3,000 miles away, leading to probes into whether they were reimbursed, an illegal act called political money laundering.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the county prosecutor’s office.

Villaraigosa returned the $47,000 during the campaign.

Hahn returned $2,500 of the $11,450 in excess contributions received by his campaign. Former campaign advisor Kam Kuwata said it was sometimes difficult to spot contributions from the same source “in the hurly-burly of the campaign.”

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