Former L.A. City Hall aide fined $37,500 for failing to report lobbying
A former City Hall aide and his consulting company are being fined $37,500 by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission after failing to report that he was lobbying Los Angeles officials.
Gary Benjamin, a former planning deputy to City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, formed his own consulting company after he had left his city job and worked with Elizabeth Peterson Group, which is registered with the city as a lobbying firm.
His firm, Alchemy, was paid more than $209,000 for lobbying activities over a period of two years, according to an Ethics Commission report. Benjamin said he was surprised to hear that his work was seen as lobbying when investigators reached out to him earlier this year, describing most of his work as “research oriented and administrative.”
“It didn’t rise to my understanding of what lobbying was,” Benjamin said in an interview. “I don’t meet with elected officials. I don’t engage in fundraising activity.”
Under city rules, “lobbying activities” can include research and providing advice to clients if that work is part of a paid effort to contact city officials and influence an upcoming municipal decision.
Lobbyists are supposed to register with the city if they are paid to spend 30 or more hours on lobbying activities — including at least one direct contact with a city official or employee for that purpose — during a period of three consecutive months. They are also required to file regular reports that outline their lobbying efforts.
After going over the rules with Ethics Commission investigators, Benjamin acknowledged that he should have registered as a lobbyist and promptly turned in forms detailing his clients and what they were seeking from the city.
“It was unwise of me not to look into the laws that affected the industry,” Benjamin said, calling it “an unfortunate mistake.”
Members of the Ethics Commission unanimously approved the fine at a meeting Tuesday. Ahead of the vote, attorney Bradley Hertz urged the commission to hold off, calling it “misguided” to impose such lobbying penalties on “permit expediters,” whom he dubbed a “different breed” than traditional lobbyists.
Hertz, whose firm advises clients on lobbying laws, was not representing Benjamin but said in a letter that he was concerned about targeting for enforcement people who don’t seek access to top officials at City Hall and usually aren’t politically active for “inadvertently and understandably” failing to file reports.
Commission member Shedrick Davis said it was worth talking about how to improve educational efforts, but noted that Benjamin had previously worked for both the city and a lobbying firm. Ethics Commission executive director Heather Holt argued that enforcement was itself an educational tool.
Lobbying laws are now being “actively enforced,” Holt said, which has put people on notice that “these laws matter.”
The investigation was spurred by a whistleblower complaint, according to the Ethics Commission. Lobbying disclosures for Benjamin, filed after he heard from investigators, list clients that included real estate developers planning new housing and shops, as well as bars and restaurants seeking city approvals.
Benjamin said that he had met with staffers for some council members, but not the elected officials themselves. Ethics Commission staffers initially stated in their report that Benjamin had met with both elected officials and their staffers, but later amended the report to say that he had met only with staffers after Benjamin told them it was incorrect.
Benjamin faced a maximum fine of $75,000, but Ethics Commission staffers decided to halve the proposed penalty because he cooperated with investigators, filed the required reports within weeks of being contacted by staff, and had no history of wrongdoing with the Ethics Commission. Nor, they said, was there evidence of “an intent to conceal or deceive.”
The fine is one of the biggest penalties that the city has levied for failing to properly report lobbying. Earlier this year, the Ethics Commission imposed fines on land use consulting group Pacific Crest Consultants and two of its executives that totaled $65,000, including fines of $20,000 or more for the company and each executive, for failing to report lobbying.
Three years earlier, progressive advocacy group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy was fined $30,000 for not accurately reporting its lobbying activities for three years. The influential group, commonly known as LAANE, had registered as a lobbying entity but not reported how much money it had spent or on which issues it had lobbied.
Former municipal officials also face “revolving door” restrictions on immediately coming back to lobby the city. Benjamin, who left his city job more than four years ago, was not fined for any such violations.
The biggest “revolving door” penalty was levied this year on former planning department chief Michael LoGrande, who was fined more than $281,000.
Jimmy Blackman, who had been an aide to former Councilman Dennis Zine, paid a $22,500 fine for such violations. And Marie Rumsey, another former O’Farrell aide, was fined over $7,000 three years ago.
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