L.A. on the Record: The mayor’s new ethics officer

Mayor Karen Bass stands in front of two advisors at a podium.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass presents her first city budget at City Hall in April. In the six months since she took office, Bass has been working with a former Obama administration advisor who has helped the city hire its first-ever ethics officer for the mayor’s office.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our City Hall newsletter. It’s Julia Wick.

Standing on the debate stage at the Skirball Cultural Center in late September, then-mayoral candidate Karen Bass was unamused. And slightly indignant.

“Let me just say,” she told the auditorium audience and viewers at home, “that he stole my plan.”

The plan in question — appointing a so-called ethics czar to ensure a corruption-free administration — was a popular one during the feverish final months of the fight to lead a city gripped by a crisis of faith in local government.

As Angelenos looked toward City Hall with disgust and deep distrust, Bass and Rick Caruso continued to laud their ethics and accountability plans.

Back on the Skirball stage, Bass one-upped Caruso’s promise of an ethics czar with an actual name, and a well-known one at that: “Norm Eisen, who was Obama’s ethics czar, has agreed that if I have the privilege of being the mayor of Los Angeles that he will come ... do a top-to-bottom review of all city policies.”


Eisen’s name was frequently touted by Bass on the campaign trail, as she promised that the leading ethics and anti-corruption expert would review rules and procedures for her administration, should she win.

In the six months since she took office, the mayor has been largely quiet about that top-to-bottom ethics review and Eisen’s role in her administration, save for one photo of the two of them shaking hands tweeted in February.

But behind the scenes, Eisen has been in regular communication with Bass’ team and helped the city hire Ruth Kwon, the first-ever ethics officer for the mayor’s office.

Kwon, a former deputy city attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney, started as the mayor’s ethics officer on May 1.

Kwon will assist the mayor’s office in developing “policies relating to ethics, transparency, and other initiatives for this office and the city as a whole,” according to Bass spokesperson Zach Seidl. She reports to the mayor’s counsel, David Michaelson.

Eisen recommended that the mayor’s office create the ethics officer role and made suggestions about what the job should look like, Seidl said.

The smiling photo of Bass and Eisen that she posted to Twitter was taken when Eisen — a native Angeleno who now resides in Washington, D.C. — spent a day at City Hall with her team on Feb. 6.


Michaelson, Chris Thompson (Bass’ chief of staff), Jenny Delwood (deputy chief of staff), Joey Freeman (director of policy and budget initiatives) and Veronica Gutierrez (an interim deputy chief of staff who has since departed) were among those invited to meet in person with Eisen, according to a calendar invitation shared in a public records request.

Since then, Michaelson has been Eisen’s primary contact in the office, along with Kwon since she was hired, Seidl said.

Eisen is not being paid by the city for his work, but it does fall under the umbrella of his broader role as a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. The partnership with the Bass administration is part of Brookings’ Sustainable Development Goals Leadership Cities Network, “where we share learning and best practices in promoting ethics and integrity at the municipal level,” Eisen said.

Seidl said that other steps taken thus far by the mayor’s office include more robust vetting of prospective commissioners and mayor’s office employees.

That means looking at an individual’s “full online presence,” as well as reviewing potential city conflicts during the pre-appointment process, often before other city entities (such as the Personnel Department and the Ethics Commission) conduct their own checks, Seidl said.

Close readers of this newsletter may remember that last month Seidl told us that the mayor was working “to revise internal policies related to contributions from lobbyists and developers” for donations to the Getty House Foundation.


(Behested donations are perfectly legal and often support noble causes, but critics have long argued that they can create the appearance of a pay-to-play system, with donors looking to curry favor with politicians by supporting their pet causes.)

Seidl said Eisen has “been actively involved” in revising those internal policies, but the spokesperson declined to say when the new policy would be announced or whether it would be applied retroactively. Bass has reported more than $700,000 in behested donations to the Getty House Foundation and the Mayor’s Fund since taking office.

Eisen said that the question of “how we can ethically and transparently muster public-private partnerships” was one he had researched for years and was part of his work with the mayor’s office, but he made clear that any specific policy decisions or announcements would rest with the mayor’s office.

His broader top-to-bottom review of ethics practices in the mayor’s office is still underway, he said.

“The most important thing when you’re doing this kind of systematic analysis, research and policy formation is to get it right,” Eisen said. “The problem is a complex one. The mayor and her team are working extremely hard on it.”

State of play

— GET WELL SOON: Bass tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday evening, according to her office, but still joined BizFed for a virtual housing forum Friday morning.


— OVERDUE APOLOGIES: The City Council formally apologized for the role the city government played in fueling the Zoot Suit riots. The 80th anniversary of the brutal attacks on young Latino, Filipino and Black Angelenos were commemorated Friday in council chambers, with a presentation led by Councilmember Kevin de León.

JUNETEENTH: The City Council voted Friday to codify Juneteenth as a permanent paid holiday for city employees, a year after then-Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a proclamation creating the holiday.

SANCTUARY CITY: The council also voted Friday to toughen policies around the use of city resources for federal immigration enforcement. L.A.’s proposal, referred to by the council as a “sanctuary city” law, would essentially codify existing policies, including a 2017 executive directive issued by Garcetti.

— ON THE HORIZON: Small business owner Sam Kbushyan announced his candidacy to replace termed-out Council President Paul Krekorian this week. Kbushyan, who served on Bass’ transition advisory team, joins an increasingly crowded field that also includes TreePeople policy director Manny Gonez (husband of L.A. Unified board member Kelly Gonez) and former Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, among others.

— LONG SLOG TO REFORM: L.A. Mag’s Jon Regardie has a nice update on the city’s governance reform committee, which has been hopscotching around town for meetings in various communities.

— NEVER TWEET: The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said this week it would no longer post to Twitter after website moderators ignored requests to delete a torrent of bigoted and hateful comments left under a post about employees attending the West Hollywood Pride parade. The office will maintain a presence on Instagram and TikTok, my colleague James Queally reports.

MUSICAL CHAIRS: Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson has a new chief of staff — Joanne Kim, who previously served as senior advisor. She replaces Solomon Rivera, who moved over to the Bass administration last week as a deputy chief of staff.

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  • Where is Inside Safe? The mayor’s homelessness initiative was in Hollywood this week, with an operation at an encampment on El Centro Avenue, according to a news release and remarks made by the mayor.
  • On the docket for next week: The Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform meets Monday and the Ad Hoc Committee on the 2028 Olympics and Paralympic Games will meet Tuesday.

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