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The ethics of free tickets

From the start, the hoopla over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s acceptance of free tickets to Lakers games, Dodgers games and sundry other Los Angeles festivities without reporting them as gifts has been at least as much about subtext as scandal. No one really thought he’d be fined or punished, but the smarmy business of entertaining himself at others’ expense reinforced his image as a pampered, self-indulgent lightweight rather than a public official of gravity and significance.

Of course, Villaraigosa is hardly alone in his bad habits. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger accepted free travel; former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez enjoyed fine meals, wine and baubles — paid for by others. Their colleagues in Sacramento exploit lax rules, then blame rule makers for imposing too many restrictions. To its credit, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission sought to strike a fair balance between the legitimate interest of the city in having its public officials attend public events and the undesirable opportunity for private entities seeking official approval for their projects to curry favor by doling out tickets. With its vote Wednesday, the commission did its job well, directing its staff to draft a new and nuanced set of rules. Once that’s done, the commission should ratify the measure and the City Council, a graveyard of past ethics reforms, should approve it.

After weighing the matter for months, the commission voted to bar city leaders from accepting free tickets from any entity with business pending before the city. It also required top officials to report who gave them tickets — and their value — when the entity has no business pending, even if the city official attends the event in part to present a proclamation or perform some other official business. It allowed for the exchange of trinkets — the pens and plaques that are bestowed as courtesies and have little actual value — and created an exception for any official who accepts a free ticket without knowing that the entity had a matter pending. Those are reasonable accommodations for the realities of life, in which not every interaction between a public official and a constituent is a quest for influence.

Commissioner Nedra Jenkins, the sole commissioner to vote against this proposal, objected to it because, as she said, “I just don’t think everybody’s corrupt.” She’s right, of course. It hardly renders a public official a criminal to take in a few innings of a Dodgers game as a treat from the owners when the owners don’t want something in return. These new ethics rules, however, will help curb the excesses that raised public doubts. And if the mayor still wants to be a regular at ballgames, nothing stops him from buying a ticket.

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