Unopposed board raised $8 million
It has been more than a decade since any of Los Angeles County’s five supervisors faced a serious election contest, but that hasn’t curbed their appetite for campaign cash.
A Times analysis of political donations shows that supervisors have raised more than $8 million since 1998, tapping businesses, labor unions and individuals who have stakes in decisions made by the nation’s largest county government.
The supervisors have used their political war chests to scare off potential opponents, donate to favorite political causes and spend on personal campaign items, including a gun permit in one case and UCLA sports tickets in another.
Until now, the scope of these political donations was almost impossible to gauge. Unlike other local governments -- including the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- the county has never made such contributions accessible in a searchable online database.
But over the last four months, The Times has built a database of more than 15,000 contributions and, starting today, it is available at latimes.com. A review of the donations provides the most comprehensive look yet at who has given money to the supervisors since voters approved strict limits on campaign contributions in 1996.
* Developers dominate the list of the most generous donors, with Newhall Land & Farming Co. on top. The company, along with its executives and their relatives, gave about $65,000. The supervisors have approved the company’s plans to build a 20,885-home development at Newhall Ranch, despite opposition from environmentalists.
* Other top contributors include companies that have been awarded contracts to provide services to the county. For example, Premier Building Maintenance and its officers have given $39,700. Last year, the county paid Premier $5 million for janitorial services. A company executive said the firm won its contracts in open and fair bidding.
* Supervisors have held their wallets open even when they faced no opposition. In 2000, when their terms were about to expire, Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich ran unopposed on the ballot yet amassed as a group more than $1.4 million.
* In 1998, more than a year after voters approved limits on the amount donors can give to the supervisors, Knabe, who was newly elected, used a legal loophole to raise money in excess of those limits to pay election debts. He collected 40 donations exceeding the $1,000 limit per donor, raising nearly $120,000.
Nothing prohibits contractors and developers with projects pending before the county board from giving money to a supervisor’s campaign. And supervisors defend their practice of accepting such donations, saying they need the money to ensure reelection.
They insist that they do not allow campaign cash to influence their government decisions and point to instances when they have voted against contributors.
“Any time you get to a place where you feel because you get $1,000 you have to vote for their issue, you’re in trouble,” Burke said.
Antonovich said: “People who contribute are buying my philosophy. I’m not buying theirs.”
Campaign reform advocates expressed skepticism, however, noting that the largest donors gave to all five supervisors, whose political views span a broad spectrum. Burke, Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina are Democrats; Knabe and Antonovich are Republicans.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said elected officials should be barred from voting on issues that would probably benefit contributors.
She cited rules that prohibit Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members -- who include all five supervisors -- from accepting more than $10 from companies that seek contracts from the transit agency.
“It creates a perception that people who make large donations get additional access to our elected officials,” Feng said. “Sometimes, that impression can translate into real influence.”
Feng also criticized county leaders for failing to move sooner to offer a more accessible way to see who contributes to supervisors. The county registrar-recorder’s office posts printed copies of campaign finance reports on its website, but they are difficult to view and do not allow the public to easily search for donors.
The state and some local government agencies provide better online tools for the public. The secretary of state’s office launched its Web database for candidates running for state office in 2000. The city of Los Angeles’ online database includes donations since 1998, when Ethics Commission workers started computerizing contributions to candidates for city offices.
County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack said efforts to use the same software the city uses were stalled until recently by legal and technology concerns. The county is preparing to launch its own online database this summer.
The database will initially include contributions made since January to candidates for supervisor, sheriff, district attorney and assessor. McCormack said the county would not add older contributions, saying staff shortages and the county’s rules on soliciting bids for outsourced work would make the task too difficult.
“There’s no legal requirement for us to go back,” she said. “It would be a huge amount of work.”
The Times spent $6,300 to hire a private company to computerize the supervisors’ campaign finance records back to 1998. The newspaper then built its own database, which includes monetary and nonmonetary contributions, refunds and loans.
A review of the data shows that Knabe, Antonovich and Yaroslavsky each raised more than $2 million over the last nine years. Burke collected $1.4 million. Molina -- who makes little secret of her distaste for fundraising -- lagged well behind with $527,589.
In 1996, county voters approved a ballot measure that in most cases restricts donations to campaign accounts to $1,000 per donor per election cycle. Until then, the county had no limits, and some unions and businesses pumped tens of thousands of dollars into individual campaigns.
A review of the donations shows that the limits have eliminated such large one-time donations and reduced the influence individual donors can exert on an election.
“I think it’s totally changed the dynamic of political campaigns and the appearance of favoritism completely,” said Yaroslavsky, who wrote the campaign reform measure.
In 1998, Knabe exceeded the limits by accepting donations of as much as $5,000 to pay off expenses from his 1996 election, which took place before the rules took effect. His spokesman said he raised the money only after receiving a memo from county lawyers saying it was legal to do so.
Among his top donors were investors who lease land from the county in Marina del Rey and developers, such as Newhall Land, that need county approval for their projects.
Interest groups continue to dominate the top donors to supervisors, despite the 1996 reforms. The $1,000 limit does not stop a company, its executives and employees and their relatives from each giving the maximum allowed. In addition, donors can contribute not only to supervisors’ campaign committees but also to legal defense and officeholder accounts that all five supervisors keep for official business expenses.
Newhall Land, its executives and their relatives have provided steady support to most of the supervisors. The developer gave most generously in 1999 and 2003, coinciding with the two votes the board took in approving the company’s sprawling Newhall Ranch development.
“If they don’t vote for the projects, they won’t continue to get the contributions,” said Lynne Plambeck, an environmentalist who opposes the Newhall project.
Yaroslavsky voted against the project in 2003, the only supervisor to do so. The company has not donated to him since.
Newhall spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said the developer does not contribute in order to gain favor for its own projects.
“We’ve ... given to people who we think better the quality of life in Los Angeles County,” she said.
Because no supervisor has faced a run-off election in more than a decade, they are left with millions of dollars that campaign rules say cannot be used in future elections. Supervisors donate most of it to charities, civic groups and ballot measures.
But other expenditures stand out. In 1998, Antonovich used contributions to pay the Sheriff’s Department $109 for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Antonovich, a retired reserve police officer, said he sought the permit in response to threats on his life.
“My personal protection is connected to my performance of my duties as an elected official,” he said.
State law allows expenditures that are directly related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.
Yaroslavsky, a Bruins fan who likes to quote legendary basketball coach John Wooden, spent thousands of dollars on UCLA football and basketball tickets.
In response to questions about the tickets, Yaroslavsky provided a written statement, saying he took guests “whose responsibilities overlap with mine as an elected official or who have roles in the communities I represent that overlap with my responsibilities as an elected official.”
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A review of financial contributions to Los Angeles County’s five supervisors shows that they have raised more than $8 million since 1998, even though none has faced a serious election challenge in a decade.
Mike Antonovich: $2,164,576
Zev Yaroslavsky: 2,040,911
Don Knabe: 2,014,349
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke: 1,413,036
Gloria Molina: 527,589
Named below are a few of the most generous contributors, many of whom do business with the county. The amounts can include contributions made by the company, its executives and employees and their relatives.
Newhall Land & Farming Co. (developer): $65,600
Del Rey Shores (leaseholder of county land in Marina del Rey): $49,750
Premier Building Maintenance (county janitorial services contractor): $39,700
Tarzana Treatment Center (county contractor and drug and alcohol treatment provider): $35,800
B. Butler Enterprises/Scapular House/Canon Human Services Centers (county contractor and drug and alcohol treatment provider): $34,900
California Commerce Casino (casino): $34,075
American Medical Response (county contractor and ambulance services provider): $32,800
Watson Land Co. (developer): $29,350
Louis Weider (former leaseholder of county land in Marina del Rey): $26,375
Tejon Ranch Co. (developer): $21,687
Sources: Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder, Times reporting
To use The Times’ database detailing campaign contributions given Los Angeles County supervisors, go to
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