Los Angeles ethics panel fails to tighten freebie rules

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission failed Tuesday to approve a plan to tighten rules regulating free tickets received by elected officials, with one member warning that the panel is on the verge of weakening, not strengthening, its own gift laws.

Two months after the agency’s enforcement team opened an investigation into Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s practice of accepting free tickets to major sports and cultural events, commissioners found themselves at odds over a proposal to bar high-level officials from receiving any gift from companies with business pending before them.

The five-member panel postponed a vote on the city’s gift law, including a new proposal to require politicians to disclose the free tickets even if they receive them as part of their official duties.

Tuesday’s debate showed the challenges confronting the commissioners as they attempt to regulate the conduct of the politicians who have appointed them.

Commissioner Nedra Jenkins, who was named to the panel by former City Controller Laura Chick, said she feared that tighter regulation of gifts would limit the ability of elected officials to meet the public outside of City Hall. Jenkins, an attorney for Los Angeles County government, said she joined the commission specifically because she was introduced to Chick at an outside event.

“For people like me who aren’t the most politically connected, I think it’s nice being able to have those interactions” with elected officials, she said.

Jenkins promised to vote against a proposal, prepared by the agency’s policy analysts, to bar city politicians from receiving any gift from companies seeking city contracts and development approvals. And she said she would be happy to allow such companies to give up to $420 a year in gifts to each official — up from the $100 in existing city law.

Commissioner Marlene Canter voiced dismay with that proposal, saying it would leave the impression that the commission is retreating from its previous ethical standards, just as the public is growing more interested in the issue of gifts to politicians.

“I think we are moving in the wrong direction,” said Canter, a former Los Angeles school board president.

Commission President Helen Zukin, also an attorney, said a $420 gift limit would put the city’s law in line with the state. That, she told Canter, would make it easier for companies that do business with the city to understand and comply with the law.

“We are not lessening any of our regulations,” she said. “We are not allowing for more corruption.”

The commission has been trying since mid-July to overhaul its gift law. The state does not consider free entry to a major event to be a gift if an official performs a “ceremonial” duty while attending it.

Villaraigosa has acknowledged accepting free tickets to at least 85 events over the last five years. He contends that those tickets do not qualify as gifts under state law.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission are also looking at those events — and whether any laws were broken. The FPPC is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider changes to its own gift law that would require disclosure of all free tickets obtained as part of an official’s ceremonial duties.

Since 2005, Villaraigosa has attended several events paid for by companies with business before his administration. Officials with the Dodgers, which provided the mayor entry to at least 14 games, have worked with his staff on a proposed retail project, a city-funded shuttle bus and a marathon route.

Chick, the former city controller who appointed Jenkins, said she believes there is a simple solution for both enforcement panels: bar gifts from any restricted source.

“If someone wants to show you their appreciation, they should write you a really nice handwritten note,” she said.