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L.A. council candidate starts paying $91,000 fine for bogus donor information

L.A. council candidate starts paying $91,000 fine for bogus donor information
Former Los Angeles City Council candidate Robert Cole was fined by the City Ethics Commission for submitting names of phony contributors. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles City Council candidate accused of submitting bogus information about campaign contributions has begun paying his $91,548 fine after missing a first payment earlier this year, under an agreement approved by a city commission Wednesday.

Robert L. Cole Jr. was fined by the City Ethics Commission for submitting names of phony contributors — including multiple donations that were attributed to dead people — when seeking matching funds from the city for his unsuccessful bid to replace longtime Councilman Bernard C. Parks earlier this year.

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To qualify for matching funds, candidates must show they have gotten at least $5 each from a minimum of 200 residents living in the area they seek to represent.

Cole was turned down for the money after Ethics Commission officials concluded that his campaign had filed false information about its donors.

Many people who were named as contributors told investigators that they had not made donations: Overall, more than 71% of the people that investigators were able to contact said they hadn't donated to the Cole campaign.

Cole said in an interview earlier this year that the problems stemmed from an overzealous volunteer and that he was unaware that incorrect information had been submitted. Cole nonetheless took overall responsibility and agreed to pay the fine.

"I didn't do my due diligence," he said earlier this year.

City investigators found that Cole told the volunteer to raise the needed money "by any means necessary." At the time, the campaign owed roughly $9,000 to staff for salaries and $17,000 to Cole himself for personal loans.

After struggling to raise enough money, the volunteer took donations from Cole's family and friends, divided them up and attributed them to people named on an outdated list of local residents, some of whom were dead and some of whom now live outside California, according to a city report summarizing the case.

During a lengthy discussion Wednesday, ethics commissioner Nathan Hochman questioned whether Cole was aware of the more "scintillating" facts of the case — that the campaign was claiming donations from dead people and individuals who had not given to the campaign.

In reaction, Ethics Commission enforcement director Sergio Perez said he needed to honor the agreement already reached by Cole and the city, which supported facts about what had happened.

Cole "failed to review the contributions and supporting documents that he received from the volunteer," a city report detailing the agreement states.

The document also states that Cole himself supplied false information about the date of the contributions, as well as employment information for the named donors.

Members of the Ethics Commission were scheduled to approve the fine and a payment agreement in June, but rejected it after Cole failed to make his first $10,000 installment. Failing to abide by the terms of the agreement could have jeopardized his payment plan or enabled the commission to pursue more violations against him.

However, Cole later provided nearly $25,000 to the city, bringing him back in line with the scheduled payments, according to city staffers.

Cole has agreed to pay the remaining sum of nearly $67,000 in monthly installments from September to May 2016. Members of the Ethics Commission unanimously voted to approve the proposed agreement Wednesday.

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Times staff writers David Zahniser and Jean Merl contributed to this report.

Follow @latimesemily for what's happening at Los Angeles City Hall

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