A Roast, With a Side of Access

Times Staff Writer

Donations to buy access to elected officials are a fact of Los Angeles political life. But rarely is a solicitation quite as joyfully blatant as the invitation to an upcoming political roast of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The event, organized by two lobbyists and a City Hall aide, is a fundraiser for the American Diabetes Assn.

For $25,000, a donor to the ninth annual Los Angeles Political Roast who wants a little private time with the mayor can get it. That amount grants the giver the formal designation of “Heavy Hitter.” It buys two tables for 10 “in the thick of things” at the Century Plaza Hotel event. Heavy Hitters also get entree to a private reception with Villaraigosa and other dignitaries in a “smoke-filled backroom.” That’s a bit overstated -- the Century Plaza does not allow smoking -- but it’s still access.


So far, the new AT&T;, recently created by SBC Communication’s acquisition of AT&T;, is the only member of that elite club.

It takes just $10,000 to get the coveted title of “Fat Cat” -- less prestigious, to be sure, than a heavy hitter, but not bad.

A dozen Fat Cats are listed on the invitation. And though their donations for this event go to a good cause, their interests extend far beyond fighting diabetes. AEG, the sports and entertainment arm of billionaire Philip Anschutz, is one Fat Cat. The company plans to construct a $1.7-billion hotel, retail and entertainment complex next to Staples Center downtown. To build the hotel, AEG is counting on $290 million in financial help from the city.

Other Fat Cats are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which wants to build a new rail yard near the port of Los Angeles; developer Shapell Industries; and two law firms that lobby city officials on behalf of clients.

The Fat Cats, according to the invitation, are shut out of the smoke-filled room, but they get their perks too: a table for 10 at the dinner and a full-page ad in the event’s magazine-style program.

One of the Fat Cats is lobbyist Arnie Berghoff, who came up with the idea of the annual roast. Though he is a self-proclaimed fat cat, Berghoff’s motives are altruistic. His daughter Laura has had diabetes since childhood. Since its inception nine years ago, the event has raised more than $2.2 million to fund research, education and advocacy programs of the American Diabetes Assn.


Berghoff is confident that attendance at the March 16 roast of Villaraigosa will break the previous record of nearly 1,200 tickets sold when then-City Council President Alex Padilla was roasted in 2004. Both men serve on the board of the Los Angeles chapter of the diabetes association.

Heavy Hitters naturally top the political food chain, and Fat Cats are not far below. But the more modest may aspire only to be “Power Brokers,” and this event bestows that title on anyone willing to donate $5,000. Those connected-but-not-extravagant donors get a table at the dinner and, as do the bigger-ticket donors, a full-page ad.

The ranks of Power Brokers include, well, Los Angeles’ power brokers: lobbyists, law firms, architects, engineers, developers, oil companies, investment bankers, dump operator BFI and the union that represents Los Angeles police officers.

The bottom of the donor list, which carries none of the perks of big giving, is the mere “Constituent.” No surprise there.

“One way you raise money is to target different people,” Berghoff said. “This is the Los Angeles Political Roast. It’s not aimed at entertainment people. It’s aimed at people who are interested in government and politics.”

To sell tickets, “We all get on the phone. We know who does business with the city. We know who does business with the county.”


Berghoff said the roast is intended to make light of local politics. “We make it funny from the invitation to when you go home,” he said.

This year’s invitation features a doctored cover of the Newsweek issue that heralded Villaraigosa’s election as the latest sign of the growing power of Latinos in American politics. But the headlines and story lines on this cover have been changed: “In this issue,” the cover proclaims: “How to Extend the Mayoral Honeymoon” by Jim Hahn and “Best Places to Get Bottled Water in L.A.”

Instead of calling the donor levels gold, platinum and silver, Berghoff said, he and lobbyist Harvey Englander came up with the idea of Heavy Hitters, Fat Cats and Power Brokers to poke fun at the political system.

“I don’t mind making fun of myself,” said Berghoff, who was inspired by political roasts in Washington and Sacramento.

In past years, the roastees have included former City Council President John Ferraro, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Councilman Hal Bernson, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Mayor Jim Hahn, Supervisor Don Knabe, ex-council President Padilla and county Sheriff Lee Baca.

Although paying for access is, for many, a troublesome fact of modern political life -- it has the effect, after all, of shutting out those without cash -- some campaign finance watchdogs are inclined to give a pass to this event. The money goes to fighting diabetes. If it puts some executives in the company of elected officials whose favor they desire, well, that’s considered a small price for a good cause.


“It’s not troubling,” said Bob Stern, president of the L.A.-based Center for Governmental Studies and one of the authors of the city’s campaign finance system. “I don’t really think you are currying favor.”

But Paul Ryan, a lawyer who worked with Stern for years, takes a different view: “Any time that donors with interests before a government entity have an opportunity to make large or unlimited contributions that will give them access to a political officeholder, voters or citizens would understandably be concerned,” he said.

Ryan, now associate legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said it doesn’t matter if the contribution is to a charitable organization, a candidate, a ballot measure or an officeholder’s legal defense fund. “The threat of real or apparent corruption depends on the access given to the donor,” he said.

That strikes Englander and Berghoff as mean-spirited and a bit humorless.

The notion that someone buys a table or two at a charitable event to gain access to a politician is “too ridiculous to even contemplate,” Englander said. Those who have paid big money have qualified as Fat Cats. And Fat Cats, he noted, hardly need a charitable event to get close to the mayor.

“These people,” he said, “can all get their own private meetings.”