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L.A.'s new definition of a ‘lobbyist’ creates confusion

Times Staff Writer

If anyone has been the public face of the Las Lomas housing project, a controversial plan to build 5,500 homes in north Los Angeles County, it is Hillary Norton Orozco.

A seasoned political operative who worked at Los Angeles City Hall a decade ago, Orozco has spent the last year drumming up support for the project by testifying at hearings, chatting up civic groups and meeting privately with members of the Los Angeles City Council.

Yet Orozco, who works for Las Lomas developer Dan Palmer, has not registered as a lobbyist. This week, she said she had not logged enough hours to meet the city’s definition. After inquiries by The Times, Orozco said she will probably register in April.

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Foes of Las Lomas say she should have been registered all along. They argue that by not registering, Orozco has shielded her company from having to reveal exactly how much it has spent promoting the controversial project. Such disclosure is required under the city’s ethics laws.

“It could be T-shirts. It could be polling. It could be slick brochures and presentations,” said Steve Afriat, a registered lobbyist who represents the neighboring city of Santa Clarita, an opponent of the project. “The public has a right to know how much is being spent and who that [money] could be influencing.”

Orozco is one of several paid advocates under fire from critics who say they have not fully complied with the city’s lobbying laws.

At the Port of Los Angeles, opponents of a proposed $300-million rail yard question whether a rail company should have registered its high-powered representatives, including attorney Mickey Kantor, a lawyer who once served as a Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration.

And in Mount Washington, an advocate for the Southwest Museum recently filed a complaint with the city Ethics Commission against the law firm Latham & Watkins, saying it spent two years representing the Autry National Center, a museum of Western history near Griffith Park, without identifying the facility as a lobbying client.

Under city law, a lobbyist is defined as anyone who is paid to work 30 hours on a specific city project over a three-month period and who makes one verbal contact with a single policymaker during that time.

That definition, written into the 2006 ballot measure known as Proposition R, is part of a larger ethics law designed to inform the public about lobbying activity, from the amount the advocates earn to the number of campaign contributions they collect for city politicians.

Over the last year, officials said, Orozco met privately with council members and their aides at least seven times as part of a larger effort to get Los Angeles to process Las Lomas’ application, annex its land and approve thousands of new homes.

Orozco said she did not register because she spent most of her time performing such tasks as attending community meetings and managing the team of paid lobbyists that has been trying to cobble together support for the project.

“They say [lobbying] is 30 hours of direct contact with elected officials and their staffs in a three-month period,” Orozco said.

Ethics Commission officials would not specifically discuss Las Lomas. But they offered a sharply different interpretation of the city’s rules, saying that once a paid advocate speaks to a policymaker, almost any work on the project -- legal advice, environmental review, community outreach -- counts toward the 30-hour threshold.

The definition “is quite broad,” said David Tristan, the commission’s deputy director.

The commission has the power to impose a $5,000 penalty for each violation of the city’s lobbying ordinance. Still, the commission’s executive director, LeeAnn Pelham, said such cases are difficult to prosecute because lobbying frequently occurs behind closed doors.

“It’s impossible for an agency with four investigators to be everywhere,” she said.

Railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe has made arguments similar to Orozco’s. Kantor, an attorney retained by the company, met three times in 2007 with Harbor Commission President S. David Freeman, an appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to discuss the planned rail yard in Wilmington, according to the commission’s meeting minutes. He also discussed the project last year with Harbor Commissioner Joseph Radisich.

Still, rail company spokeswoman Lena Kent said Kantor did not need to register as a lobbyist during 2007 because he had not spent 30 hours preparing for those meetings.

Kent also argued that Kantor and another lawyer, former California Assemblyman Dario Frommer, were working as lawyers, not lobbyists -- handling the project’s environmental review.

“They have meetings on our behalf, but they are our legal staff,” Kent said.

Ethics Commission officials said the preparation of environmental documents also counts toward the 30 hours.

Until 2006, paid advocates were not considered lobbyists in Los Angeles until they earned $4,000 from a client during a three-month period -- and made one contact with a policymaker. When voters approved Proposition R, they replaced the $4,000 threshold with 30 hours of work.

Since the definition changed, business leaders have complained that the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a nonprofit group that convinced the City Council to impose a higher living wage at hotels on Century Boulevard, functions as a pro-union lobbying operation and was slow to register.

The alliance registered with the Ethics Commission on Jan 15. The hotels said such a move should have occurred a year earlier.

“They should have registered the moment they started advocating for the living wage and other issues affecting the Century corridor hotels,” said Ruben Gonzalez, who represents the hotels.

Alliance spokesman Danny Feingold said his group did not register earlier because it had not met the city’s legal definition.

“But the more important issue is there’s a huge difference between a nonprofit that is an advocate for the working poor and a highly paid consultant working for a large corporation as a hired gun,” he said.

One lobbyist is the target of a 21-page complaint that accuses him of failing to register a client, the Autry museum, both before and after Proposition R was passed.

In the complaint, Mount Washington resident Mark Kenyon said William Delvac, a Latham & Watkins lawyer, attended a series of city-run meetings in 2005 and 2006 focusing on the plan to move exhibits at the Southwest Museum to the Autry. Delvac did not register as an Autry lobbyist until August.

Had he registered earlier, Delvac would have had to disclose the amount he was paid by the Autry. Instead, advocates for the Southwest Museum obtained the Autry’s tax returns, which showed that Latham was paid $90,000 in 2005 and $78,000 in 2006 for his legal work.

“Even though we were sitting in the room with them, did we know the level of influence they were exerting? No, we didn’t,” said Nicole Possert, a community advocate critical of the Autry.

Delvac said he had not seen the complaint and therefore could not comment.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com


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