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California

Real estate investor faces fine over excess campaign donations to L.A. councilman

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 6, 2017 - Barricades halt pedestrian traffic as a film crew works on the ste
A real estate developer faces a fine over campaign donations given to Councilman Mitch O’Farrell. To make it clearer where political donations are coming from, Los Angeles city officials have considered demanding more information from businesses and other groups.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles real estate investor faces a $17,000 fine after writing checks through more than a dozen companies to help elect City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, violating city rules that limit campaign donations.

The proposed fine from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission comes more than a year and a half after The Times highlighted the donations as an example of how hard it is to tell who is behind campaign contributions from businesses.

Four years ago, Leeor Maciborski wrote checks to the O’Farrell campaign from limited liability companies tied to apartment buildings in East Hollywood and Los Feliz, city investigators found. Maciborski, who was responsible for maintaining the buildings, was authorized to unilaterally make expenditures of up to $1,000 from the companies.

The donations ran afoul of campaign finance restrictions. Under city rules, each donor can give only a limited amount to each candidate running — $700 per election at the time. But investigators found that several sets of the companies had a majority of the same members, which means they were considered to be the same donors under city rules.

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All in all, the limited liability company donations exceeded city restrictions by $3,000, city investigators found. Maciborski was held responsible for the violations because he controlled the campaign contributions from the companies, according to a city summary of the investigation.

The Times initially drew attention to the donations because state filings showed that the LLCs were headed by the same person, raising questions about whether some or all of the campaign contributions came from the same donors.

Campaign finance experts said it was impossible to tell, however, without access to internal records that were not publicly available. Many business entities — particularly small, privately held limited liability companies — don’t have to publicly report who owns them. That can make it hard to tell who is giving the money and whether campaign rules are being followed.

When a reporter first inquired about the campaign contributions, O’Farrell spokesman Tony Arranaga said the councilman had not been aware of any relationship between the companies. City investigators were able to determine the ties between the business entities after Maciborski handed over operating agreements.

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To make it clearer where political donations are coming from, the Ethics Commission has weighed whether to demand more information from businesses and other groups that give to local campaigns. But so far, no changes have been made.

Councilman David Ryu suggested banning such donations entirely, but that idea failed to gain traction. Campaign consultants argued that barring donations from business entities would simply spur them to fund independent committees, which can accept donations of any size.

Maciborski did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. In the past, the real estate investor has been involved with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood groups in Los Feliz and Hollywood, which includes areas represented by O’Farrell.

Maciborski told investigators that he had signed the company checks to O’Farrell four years ago because he thought the then-candidate’s “pro-growth” platform and stance on rent control lined up with the interests of the limited liability companies, according to the city.

Maciborski also contributed, in his own name, to O’Farrell’s officeholder account that fall. Emails show that he was in touch with O’Farrell after he was first elected: That fall, Maciborski repeatedly reached out to schedule meetings with the councilman over breakfast or lunch.

He also asked the councilman to write him letters of recommendation for university programs, including an MBA program at London Business School, and an O’Farrell staffer was tasked with the job.

Arranaga, the O’Farrell spokesman, said he didn’t want to speculate on what Maciborski was referring to regarding the councilman’s position on rent control. In an email, Arranaga said that O’Farrell had committed to address the housing crisis by preserving rent-stabilized units. He did not respond to additional questions about Maciborski and their meetings.

Last month, Maciborski signed a proposed agreement to pay a $17,000 fine for the violations, which is half of the maximum possible penalty. City investigators said they suggested the lower fine because Maciborski had cooperated with the city probe.

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The Ethics Commission is slated to vote on the proposed fine for Maciborski on Tuesday.

The commission will also vote on a proposed $22,500 fine for Jimmy Blackman, a registered lobbyist who used to work at City Hall, for breaking “revolving door” rules that restrict how and when former city officials can try to sway city decisions.

Blackman worked for Antonio Villaraigosa when the politician served as councilman and later as mayor, and then became chief of staff to then-Councilman Dennis Zine. After he stopped working for the city in 2013, Blackman formed a lobbying firm that started representing the firefighters union.

Under city rules, high-ranking officials like Blackman are barred from lobbying city officials for one year immediately after leaving their city job. But less than a year after his departure, Blackman repeatedly reached out to city officials to tell them where the union stood on budget proposals, a city investigation found.

Like Maciborski, Blackman could have faced a much higher penalty, but city investigators suggested imposing half of the maximum fine because he had been cooperative.

“In an effort to advocate for Los Angeles City Firefighters and the communities they serve, I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for the oversight,” Blackman said in an email Thursday.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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