Matt Knabe is a successful Los Angeles lobbyist with a long list of clients and a reputation for delivering on their behalf. Don Knabe is a longtime Los Angeles County supervisor whose duties include doling out county business, setting policies and overseeing a vast district that swings along the county’s southern edge. Don is Matt’s father.
In the course of their work, father and son naturally bump up against one another. Don Knabe could recuse himself from matters involving his son, but he doesn’t. Matt Knabe could represent only clients with business outside the county, but he instead chooses to lobby his father’s colleagues and subordinates.
Matt, for instance, helped represent a rave operator when the Coliseum Commission, on which Don serves, considered whether to stop holding raves there; Don voted to allow raves to continue.
Matt also represents IBM. When the supervisors recently reviewed a data-mining contract, Don pulled it off the consent agenda to make sure that once a pilot project was completed, the full contract would be put out to bid. Among the potential bidders: IBM. Matt represents lifeguards who are paid by the county; Don’s district includes miles of beaches patrolled by those same lifeguards, and he approves their contracts.
Don Knabe says there is nothing wrong with any of that. Though he voted to allow raves to resume at the Coliseum, he approved the creation of a task force that his son’s client opposed (Matt says another lobbyist at his firm took the lead on that project). And though Don took an action that might benefit IBM, he did so, he said, only because the original proposal contemplated bidding for the work, and he wanted to make sure that occurred. Besides, it takes three votes to prevail at the board, so Don is not acting alone.
“It really doesn’t create a conflict,” Don said. “He doesn’t lobby me.”
Well, not much. “Primarily, for the most part, I don’t lobby him or his office,” Matt said. Asked to explain, he added that he generally avoids contacting his father or his father’s staff, but does so on occasion.
None of this adds up to a conflict of interest in the legal sense. Matt Knabe is a grown-up and entitled to make a living. Don Knabe is an elected official expected to make judgments and approve contracts.
But it’s awfully close. Put another way: If the lobbyist in question were Knabe’s wife, it would violate state law, because that would mean that the supervisor was engaged in business that could benefit him personally. But since Matt is his son and lives independently from his father, it’s legal.
The supervisor acknowledged that he could distance his work from that of his son, but he sees no reason to do so. “He has chosen his profession,” Don Knabe said. “I have chosen mine.”
Matt agreed, and he emphasized that he gets no special treatment. “If anything,” Matt said, “he’s much harder on me.”
And yet, it’s hard to escape the uneasy feeling that this relationship creates. The county’s own lobbying rules prohibit any lobbyist from doing anything “with the purpose of placing any county official under personal obligation to the county lobbyist.” That seems a sensible prohibition, and one that the Knabes’ arrangement tramples. Could there be a more personal obligation than that of a father to a son?
What’s perhaps most surprising about the county’s father-son duo is that it generates so little discomfort among government veterans. A few local leaders complain about it, but only privately, and county staff members have grown used to it.
That may be a symptom of an even larger problem: One immutable fact of Los Angeles County government life is that bad habits have a way of becoming ingrained so deeply that few even bother to question them after a while. The supervisors are infamous for blithely violating state open-meetings and records laws; given that, no one really expects them to take a stand on the ethics of one of their colleagues. Such is the complacence of low expectations.
In the end, the only protection that county taxpayers have against Don Knabe misusing his position to benefit his son is his pledge that he won’t — backed up by his assurance that they operate separately and mind their own business.
How comforting is that? Last week, as elected and appointed officials throughout the region sifted through their holiday mail, some had the pleasure of receiving the Knabe family holiday card, with its multigenerational photograph and wishes for a new year “filled with Happiness, Good Health, Peace and Joy!”
Of all the holiday greetings sent this season in Los Angeles, it surely must be the only one to feature a picture of a supervisor and a lobbyist together.