As he vies for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas has tapped labor unions and companies with business before the Legislature to donate thousands of dollars to a nonprofit he founded that works to register voters and empower residents in his South Los Angeles district.
Over the last year, Ridley-Thomas raised $200,000 from such companies as Verizon, Zenith Insurance Co. and Chevron Corp., who donated as much as $25,000 each without violating the county’s strict $1,000-per-donor limit on campaign contributions for supervisorial races.
The nonprofit -- the California Community Empowerment Foundation -- was started by Ridley-Thomas several years ago as a nonpartisan organization that seeks to engage residents in local politics and educate them about the work of government.
But political watchdog groups called the timing of the recent fundraising “troubling,” noting that the charity and its work were strongly associated with Ridley-Thomas and could help raise his profile as he campaigns for votes in the area it serves.
“This is his first competitive race in a long time, and he wants to get a lot of visibility, and everyone wants to maximize their visibility when running in a competitive race,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.
Ridley-Thomas defended the fundraising, saying it had no connection to the supervisorial campaign and that he began seeking the donations after participants in the charity’s events decided it was time to expand the organization to “raise the civic IQ” in South L.A.
He said the charity does not promote his interests but conceded that it could help raise his profile.
“Any good works that an elected official does appropriately raises his or her profile,” he said. “The reasons why I’m in public office is to help people participate in the democratic process, to learn about their communities, to engage in debate, to know what’s going on.”
Ridley-Thomas said much of the fundraising preceded his decision to run for a seat on the board. But state financial records show he reported raising more than half of the donations after his Oct. 24 announcement that he was entering the race. Indeed, during his five years in the Legislature, the senator did not report raising any money for the charity until this year.
Ridley-Thomas is locked in what is expected to be a close race with Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks for the 2nd Supervisorial District seat Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke is vacating after 16 years. The two men are the only major candidates so far, and each enjoys significant popularity in the district, parts of which each represents.
Aside from the money he has been raising for his supervisorial campaign, Parks has not reported fundraising for any charity or other organization since joining the City Council in 2003, city finance records show.
The funds raised by Ridley-Thomas for the Empowerment Foundation go to a charity called Community Partners, which helps start and sponsors civic programs and serves as an umbrella organization for the foundation and 140 similar charitable programs.
The money helps fund forums attended by tens of thousands of residents in South L.A. who come to discuss important civic issues, including race relations, the workings of state government and police-community relations.
The money also funds the Empowerment Congress, a network of residents, business leaders and neighborhood activists that was created by Ridley-Thomas in the wake of the 1992 riots and is widely cited as a precursor to today’s neighborhood councils.
Paul Vandeventer, Community Partners’ president and chief executive, said he has sole discretion over how the foundation’s funds are used and said its activities are strictly nonpartisan.
“It’s involved a wide cross-section of community leadership well beyond” Ridley-Thomas, Vandeventer said, “and has brought ordinary citizens into the mainstream, into a dialogue . . . that has profoundly changed the nature of the way people think about the problems that they face in their community.”
But others said the activities cannot help but benefit Ridley-Thomas in the months before the June 3 election. For example, photographs of Ridley-Thomas adorn the websites of both the Empowerment Congress and the Empowerment Foundation.
Dermot Givens, a lawyer and campaign consultant who has worked for both Parks and Ridley-Thomas, said an increase in civic forums and other programs that draw local residents would undoubtedly help the senator raise his profile.
“They can start pulling people into their events,” Givens said. “And who are they going to start hearing favorably about? Mark Ridley-Thomas.”
The practice of politicians raising money for charities they are associated with has recently raised concerns among political ethics experts. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) both have come under fire for seeking charitable donations from companies and organizations with business before them.
Several political ethics experts said they believe Ridley-Thomas has a reputation for integrity, but they questioned his decision to ask for donations.
“Corporations don’t give the money out of the goodness of their hearts or because it’s the season,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan group based in Santa Monica.
Among the donors were several Los Angeles labor unions that announced their endorsement this week of Ridley-Thomas’ campaign for supervisor.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians contributed $5,000 months before the Legislature approved a new compact that allowed the tribe to more than double the number of slot machines at its casinos. Ridley-Thomas voted for the compact.
Ridley-Thomas said his approval had nothing to do with the contribution. Donors, he said, could expect no political favors in return for their giving, noting that any promise or even talk of a quid pro quo would be illegal.
“I’m pleased that my record in public office has not been tainted by any such activity or behavior, nor shall it be,” he said.
Indeed, other large contributors won little sympathy from the senator when it came time to vote. Verizon contributed $25,000, but legislative records show Ridley-Thomas repeatedly voted against the company’s interests on bills this year.
Last year, however, the senator was among lawmakers who approved a bill that allowed phone companies such as Verizon to compete more easily with the cable industry to provide customers with paid television service. Verizon lobbied heavily for the bill.
Zenith Insurance Co., the state’s largest private sector workers’ compensation carrier, gave $25,000. Stanley Zax, chairman of Zenith’s board, bristled when asked if the company donated with the expectation of political help from the senator.
“He’s a pretty high-class guy, and I like him very much, and he’s helped me with some charitable endeavors that I’m involved with,” Zax said, “so I was happy to help him with something he believes in.”
Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.