In the wake of an FBI raid at City Hall, a group of L.A. politicians said earlier this year that they wanted to restore public confidence in city government.
Nearly half of the City Council asked for a new package of restrictions on fundraising, both for their campaigns and for their favored charities. But when the plan hit the council floor last week, the reaction was skeptical and, at times, dismissive.
Some council members voiced alarm about curbing their ability to raise money for local causes. Others said the proposed restrictions would hurt unions and environmental groups. Yet another questioned whether fears about donations from real estate developers are merely “hysteria.”
“I’m not quite sure — what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” asked Councilman Gil Cedillo.
Despite their concerns, council members agreed to draft several measures to restrict their fundraising activities. But the barrage of questions raised fresh doubts about how much of the overall plan will survive.
Until now, the part of the proposal that has gotten the most attention is a ban on political donations from real estate developers who are seeking city approval for their projects.
But much of the criticism from council members is being aimed at a less discussed idea: imposing new restrictions on politicians drumming up donations for their chosen charities, a phenomenon known as “behested payments.”
The Ethics Commission recommended banning politicians from asking any “restricted source” — lobbyists, city contractors, bidders and others who have sought approval on a city decision in the prior 12 months — to make a donation to their favored charity or community group.
The deliberations come six months after the FBI raided the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar, who once headed the powerful committee that vets real estate projects. A search warrant showed federal investigators also have been scrutinizing Councilman Curren Price and officials under Council President Herb Wesson and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Heather Holt, executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission, told Cedillo the proposals are designed to address a public perception that “quid pro quo and other kinds of corruption” are taking place at City Hall.
Critics have long argued that behested payments can be a way for moneyed interests to buy influence with politicians. The Times reported last year that Huizar personally asked companies that do business at City Hall to donate to Bishop Mora Salesian High School, where his wife was working as a professional fundraiser, and assigned his staff to help with the effort.
The FBI has instructed real estate developers to turn over information about donations to the school and political committees linked to Huizar.
Cedillo, who represents part of the Eastside, said the restrictions on fundraising for charities would hurt his ability to deliver Thanksgiving turkeys, toys and other aid to needy residents in his district. Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley, said the proposal would make it more difficult for elected officials to “use their status in the community to raise money for worthy organizations.”
“Like the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the women’s organizations -- whatever you want to do in your district, this puts a chilling effect on that,” Smith told his colleagues.
Rob Quan, an organizer with the advocacy group Unrig LA, countered that nonprofits should be able to survive in Los Angeles without politicians squeezing donors with city business.
“It strains credulity to believe that in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the only way we can raise money for good causes is our elected officials milking special interests with business in front of them,” said Quan, whose group favors the proposed restrictions. He is also campaign manager for Carlos Amador, a council candidate in the San Fernando Valley.
Looking to ‘curry favor’
Developers, city contractors and others with a financial stake in city decisions have given five- and six-figure contributions to causes at the request of Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city politicians. Garcetti has raised more than $42 million for his Mayor’s Fund and other charitable causes.
In recent days, Garcetti has said he supports the idea of banning politicians from asking developers for charitable donations.
State law requires elected officials to report any donation request they make that results in someone else giving $5,000 or more for a charitable or governmental purpose. An Ethics Commission report found that in the past five years, more than half of behested payments reported by L.A. politicians came from donors with business before City Hall.
“The question is why those corporations would take the direction of a council member as opposed to simply giving out of the kindness of their own hearts,” said Kathay Feng, a representative of Common Cause, which advocates for open government. “It’s clear that there’s an intention to curry favor with an elected official … and that’s fundamentally what the problem is.”
Some nonprofit executives argue that the city’s proposed restrictions would devastate charitable groups and that the city’s politicians should serve as champions for the less fortunate. Kevin Murray, a former state senator and CEO of the nonprofit homeless services agency the Weingart Center, said at a recent meeting that community members expect politicians to use their “personal gravitas” to help local groups.
Donna Lieberman, who works with the American Diabetes Assn., said a donation request from a politician carries much more weight with a potential contributor.
“Yes, I can ask for a donation from someone, but quite frankly ... when it comes from an elected official, it’s tenfold” in its impact, Lieberman said at a recent town hall meeting on the topic.
Under the city’s proposal, elected officials could still ask donors who don’t have city business to give to their chosen charities. They also could still put out calls for donations through their websites, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of mass media.
Council members also took aim at another piece of the reform package: allowing campaign donations only from individuals. Such a move would prevent businesses, labor unions and other organizations from giving to candidates.
‘A hard shift to the right’
Backers of the proposal said it would make it easier for the public to identify the source of political money. In recent years, donors have made political contributions through business entities such as limited liability companies that make it difficult to know who is truly giving.
But Councilman Bob Blumenfield warned that the measure would shut out contributions from unions and advocacy groups, triggering “a hard shift to the right politically” at City Hall. If the measure goes into effect, an environmental group like the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters would be put “out of business,” he said.
Under the proposal, business executives, union leaders and those involved in advocacy groups would still be able to give as individuals. Unions and other groups also could continue contributing as much as they want to independent expenditure committees, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates.
Council members have already decided to keep any of the proposed changes from going into effect until after the 2020 municipal elections. Such a move would ensure that candidates for seven council seats would continue raising money under the current rules.
Councilman David Ryu, who championed the proposed changes, said that despite the criticism from his colleagues, he remains “completely optimistic that these reforms will be adopted,“ said his spokesman Estevan Montemayor.
“Whether the City Council ushers in these campaign finance reforms or the voters do, reform is bound for City Hall,” Montemayor said.