No Contest in Campaign Donation Case

Times Staff Writers

Pierce O’Donnell, a prominent Southern California attorney, pleaded no contest Thursday to five misdemeanor counts of using a false name in making political contributions to the 2001 mayoral campaign of James K. Hahn.

O’Donnell was sentenced to three years’ probation and more than $155,000 in fines and penalties.

The high-profile case was one of several involving charges of political money laundering in the 2001 municipal election.


In exchange for O’Donnell’s plea, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office agreed to drop 21 other counts against O’Donnell, and additional charges against six employees and associates.

“He is also not to engage in any political fundraising” during probation, Superior Court Judge Alex Ricciardulli ordered.

Prosecutors originally alleged in June 2004 that O’Donnell collected $25,500 in contributions from employees and associates, gave the money to Hahn’s 2001 mayoral campaign and then reimbursed the donors.

The scheme allowed O’Donnell to get around the city’s $1,000 limit on contributions from individuals and to disguise the true source of the funds.

O’Donnell faced up to 13 years in jail if convicted of the original charges, but prosecutors said the plea bargain penalty was sufficient to serve as a deterrent for others.

“This was an important case in the overall effort by the D.A.’s office to ensure integrity in Los Angeles city government elections,” Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement. “Part of our job is to assure an even playing field in electoral campaigns.”


O’Donnell, 58, is still facing potential fines and sanctions by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the State Bar of California, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Ricardo Ocampo of the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division.

The district attorney’s office said an investigation is also pending by the Federal Election Commission into contributions made by O’Donnell employees and associates to the campaign of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who later became the party’s 2004 vice presidential candidate.

O’Donnell, a Montecito resident, was not in court Thursday and his plea was entered on his behalf by his attorney, George L. O’Connell.

O’Donnell issued a statement Thursday explaining why he decided not to contest the charges.

“My objective has always been to resolve this matter quickly and amicably, in the best interest of everyone involved. I needed to put this behind me and move forward now with my life,” he said.

On Thursday, prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges against six O’Donnell employees and associates, whose names were on the donations.


However, the district attorney’s office is pursuing an appeal of a judge’s earlier decision to throw out charges against O’Donnell’s assistant, Delores Valdez, whom prosecutors have alleged requested that others make contributions to Hahn’s campaign and then receive reimbursement.

The O’Donnell case, first filed in June 2004, became an issue during last year’s mayoral race. Antonio Villaraigosa, who won the contest, had chided the incumbent for not returning the laundered contributions.

In a separate case, Westside developer Mark Abrams was fined a record $270,000 by the city’s Ethics Commission last year for laundering contributions to Hahn and other candidates.

Hahn denied knowing that contributions from O’Donnell, Abrams or others were laundered.

Before Thursday’s plea, O’Donnell had argued that the charges were improperly filed by the district attorney based on state law. He said the filing should have been based on a local election law for which the statute of limitations had expired. That argument went to the state Supreme Court without success.

But one measure of O’Donnell’s standing in the legal community is that a “friend of the court” brief was filed on his behalf with the Supreme Court and its signers included former Justice Cruz Reynoso.

O’Donnell has gained national fame for handling high-profile cases. His clients have included MGM, Lockheed Martin and the cities of Anaheim and Pasadena.


Most recently, O’Donnell was lead plaintiffs’ attorney in a class-action lawsuit accusing Sempra Energy of gouging natural gas customers. O’Donnell played a key role in negotiating a $1.6-billion settlement in that case, in which the city of Los Angeles was a plaintiff.

Some of the laundered contributions were made about the same time O’Donnell urged Hahn and the city to join lawsuits against El Paso Energy and Sempra, which eventually generated millions of dollars for the city and for O’Donnell’s firm.