West Hollywood councilman’s meal expenses invite scrutiny

By all accounts, West Hollywood showered its employees with generosity. The city spent $2,070 at the Beverly Center for six Montblanc pens, given to workers who had reached employment milestones. An additional $1,500 went to Gelson’s Market gift cards for city employees. One credit card in the city manager’s office, used by various employees, accumulated $121,000 over three years.

Then there were the meals. Receipts show that one city councilman, John Duran, charged dozens of meals, often multiple times a week. Over three years, he spent more than $7,000 at local restaurants, including at such upscale eateries as Cecconi’s and Mirabelle on Sunset.

The tab that Duran rang up certainly looked questionable. But is it a crime?

That is the question Los Angeles County prosecutors are trying to answer as they investigate whether Duran’s meals violated state law. Prosecutors admit the restaurant bills are small compared to the huge sums in the scandals in Bell, Vernon, Irwindale and elsewhere. But they argue there is an important principle that needs to be tested about how public officials spend taxpayer dollars.

Municipalities have been cracking down on expenses and compensation in the post-Bell era. But if prosecutors decide to file charges in the West Hollywood case, it could have implications for elected officials across California.

David Demerjian, head of the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division, said his office has never prosecuted an official for expensing meals inside the city he or she serves. But he said Duran’s expenses are suspect because state rules allow meal and related expenses only for “necessary city business.” Expensing a meal when out of town on city business is permitted, he said. But it’s not justified to regularly expense meals within the city, especially when guests are other city employees, he said.

“I don’t mind if Mr. Duran is the test case,” he said. “The law is you can be reimbursed if it is a necessary expense. The meeting may be necessary, but the meal isn’t in West Hollywood.”

Prosecutors have collected hundreds of pages of records — sales receipts, credit card statements and expense report forms — from West Hollywood in recent months as part of an inquiry into whether the expenses violated state law. Demerjian said the meal expenses of other council members “paled in comparison” to Duran’s expenses.

Duran has responded by creating a legal defense fund for himself.

After a community activist made some of the expenses public last year, West Hollywood took away council members’ credit cards and tightened controls on spending. The Times has since reviewed hundreds of pages of expenses accrued by Duran and other council members.

Despite the uproar, City Atty. Michael Jenkins defends Duran’s spending and insists he did nothing wrong. Jenkins says Duran followed city policy in the way he expensed the meals and that city rules allow him to be compensated for them.

Council members “work for a living, and it is very difficult to find the time necessary to conduct city business, so they meet with city employees or their deputies over lunch,” Jenkins said.

“It doesn’t matter if it is lunch or breakfast outside the boundaries; it doesn’t make a difference,” Jenkins added. “Is there something special about Sacramento versus downtown L.A.? No. That is not a valid legal distinction.”

The city pays its full-time council deputies around $100,000 a year. The part-time council members each make about $15,000 a year, according to data from the state controller’s office.

Until now, the district attorney’s office has gone after officials whose use of city expenses are more blatant.

Longtime Vernon City Administrator Bruce Malkenhorst pleaded guilty last May to illegally using public money to pay for golf outings, massages and meals, as well as paying off his personal Visa credit card and getting the city to pay for his political donations. Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo and seven other Bell leaders were charged with looting more than $5.5 million from one of the county’s poorest municipalities.

Demerjian acknowledges the West Hollywood case is more difficult and, if charges are filed, the case might test case law.

Ventura County prosecutors spent nearly two years looking into expensive meals, travel and perks enjoyed by officials at Oxnard City Hall. But last month, officials announced that no criminal charges would be filed.

Perks allowed by municipalities vary widely, and prosecutors say they are entering new territory by probing whether meal expenses allowed by cities violate state law.

Demerjian said his office initiated the inquiry into the city’s credit card use after a complaint about overspending. Ed Buck, a local activist, filed a public records request last year, seeking city officials’ credit card receipts. He spent days at City Hall going through more than 8,000 receipts, he said.

Many of Duran’s meals are with his deputy. A discussion about historic preservation cost $86.42 at Melrose Bar and Grill. Another, about the City Council agenda, cost $75.86. There also are numerous lunches at such restaurants as Basix Cafe and Joey’s Cafe, with a tab of about $35 for two.

“The question is what is being accomplished for the public at the meal,” said JoAnne Speers of the Institute for Local Government in Sacramento, which offers ethics guidelines and training to elected officials.

“The analysis for Mr. Demerjian is where it is legal,” she said. “For the community, it is a question of whether the community feels it is best use of their resources.” She calls it the “taxpayer test.”

George Bird, an attorney for Duran, said he’s puzzled by all the fuss.

“This case has me scratching my head,” Bird said. “I didn’t think the world worked this way. I didn’t think public officials were prosecuted for eating a sandwich that the city paid for while they were conducting city business.”