The executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission on Tuesday accused Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of 31 violations of campaign finance and disclosure laws stemming from his 2003 campaign for the City Council.
If the Ethics Commission finds after a hearing that city rules were violated, Villaraigosa and his campaign could be fined up to $267,000, though commission officials are believed to be willing to settle the case for about $40,000 in penalties.
The vast majority of candidates settle alleged campaign finance violations without a public accusation being issued, but the mayor has decided to contest one of the allegations.
Villaraigosa was elected mayor last year on a campaign to bring higher ethical standards to city government, and a spokeswoman said there is nothing inconsistent in him challenging Ethics Commission officials over their interpretation of the rules of conduct.
“We have a disagreement with only part of the decision, and will have a discussion with the full Ethics Commission,” said Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, who was flying to El Salvador on Tuesday.
However, Bob Stern, one of the authors of the city campaign finance laws, said that the mayor’s interpretation of the law is wrong, and that Villaraigosa ought to pay the penalties to remove any question of whether the actions of his campaign were proper.
“I’m trying to figure out why the mayor is fighting this one,” said Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “He should take it like a man and pay the fine.”
After Villaraigosa rejected a proposal to settle the case, Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham was required to issue a public accusation that sets in motion a process in which the mayor’s attorney will be able to present his case to the five-member panel, which then will rule on whether violations occurred.
The commission includes one mayoral appointee.
Pelham accused Villaraigosa and his campaign of accepting four contributions that exceeded the $500 limit for individuals by a total of $1,300, including excessive donations from theater chain owner Bruce Corwin and attorney Alan Rothenberg, a mayoral appointee as president of the city Airport Commission.
The mayor also is accused of failing to file copies of campaign literature with the commission in 23 instances, and failing to file a script of two automated telephone calls and one radio advertisement.
“These were inadvertent administrative errors which I and the committee nevertheless take full responsibility for,” Villaraigosa said. He said his fundraising was aboveboard.
Stephen Kaufman, an attorney for Villaraigosa, said the campaign acknowledged those requirements. He said someone had been assigned to file the mailers, but there was no evidence that it happened.
The mayor has decided to challenge just one count: that his campaign exceeded by $39,000 the $150,000 limit on contributions from corporations, unions and others who were not individuals.
“We believe these funds were raised in accordance with the law,” Villaraigosa said. “We’re going to challenge this decision because they were raised after I was elected to the City Council and were needed for transition and officeholder expenses and not campaign expenses.”
He said the $150,000 limit is for expenses incurred “in connection with an election.” Villaraigosa won the 2003 council election against incumbent Nick Pacheco in the primary so there was a long transition period, Kaufman said.
However, elected officials usually create separate officeholder accounts to raise political donations for nonelection expenses, and the money in dispute was raised by Villaraigosa’s council campaign committee.
Kaufman noted that the committee later transferred $75,000 to an officeholder committee, indicating the intent to raise $39,000 and more for transition costs.
The campaign finance ordinance limits the amount of non-individual contributions to prevent city races from being dominated by special-interest firms and organizations.
Villaraigosa took office as mayor last year saying he would apply higher ethical standards to his administration. One of his first acts was to remove lobbyists from city commissions.
If the commission rules that the mayor violated campaign finance laws and seeks the maximum $267,000 in penalties, the fines will set a record for an elected official. But that is unlikely.
The Ethics Commission can fine violators up to $5,000 per violation, or three times the amount of the money involved. Because the commission staff alleges that Villaraigosa received $39,000 in excess of the $150,000 limit, the fine for just that charge could be $117,000.
The largest ethics fine against an elected city official was $105,000. It was levied last year against former Councilman Martin Ludlow for receiving excess contributions and other violations.
The largest fine ever imposed was a $400,000 penalty against the shipping firm Evergreen America, in 1993 for political money laundering.
This is the second time that Villaraigosa has faced possible fines for campaign finance activities.
In December 2003, he agreed to a settlement in which he paid $5,100 for accepting six contributions to his 2001 mayoral race that exceeded the $1,000 limit in citywide races.