Opinion

Editorial: Cleaning up L.A. City Hall requires turning off the spigot of cash from developers

The moon, known as a supermoon due to its slightly closer proximity to Earth, is barely visible in t
The moon hangs over Los Angeles City Hall on Jan. 20.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

Give credit to political reformers: They’re not about to let a good crisis in City Hall go to waste.

With multiple investigations rattling city government — including an FBI probe into possible corruption among Los Angeles officials and real estate interests, and the Los Angeles Times report on city officials shaking down developers for charitable donations to their pet projects — reform-minded activists have prodded the Ethics Commission to consider major changes to the city’s laws on fundraising.

The proposals include barring real estate developers from contributing to local officials’ campaigns or to charities at the request of a local elected official. If backed by the Ethics Commission and ultimately approved by the City Council, the reforms would go a long way toward turning off the spigot of cash that flows from developers to city leaders.

The point isn’t to block philanthropic giving. It’s to stop the transactional politics that have left a cloud of corruption hanging over City Hall.

It’s way past time for the council and the mayor to end the toxic pay-to-play culture they’ve allowed to fester in City Hall. Elected officials routinely seek contributions from companies and individuals with business in the city, and those donors give generously — presumably because they believe the contributions will help them get their projects approved or get favorable policies adopted.

Real estate interests are particularly enthusiastic donors because so many land-use and permitting decisions are controlled by City Council members or influenced by the mayor’s office. The money gives them, at the very least, the access they need to woo the decision makers. But it also puts a cloud of suspicion over all development in L.A. — even over projects that help the city by creating housing, jobs and investment.

Los Angeles already prohibits campaign contributions from lobbyists and from companies that have or are seeking contracts with the city, in an attempt to stamp out quid pro quo perceptions. This proposal would expand the current ban to cover contributions to political action and ballot measure committees. Barring developers from making such contributions is a logical and necessary next step toward restoring public trust in City Hall.

But a ban on campaign contributions isn’t enough. The city also needs to stop elected officials from hitting up companies to donate to their pet charitable projects.

Take, for example, Councilman Jose Huizar, whose home and offices were raided by the FBI in November. The bureau won’t say what it is investigating, but Times reporters dug up troubling allegations that the councilman, who represents downtown neighborhoods where development is booming, had asked companies that do business with City Hall to donate to a private school where his wife was working as a fundraiser.

Or consider Mayor Eric Garcetti’s former deputy Raymond Chan, whose job was to cut red tape and help expedite some of the city’s biggest real estate projects. Chan was apparently also hitting up some of the same developers to donate to the city’s 2017 Asian American heritage celebration. Chan raised tens of thousands of dollars from developers seeking approvals or awaiting building inspections, The Times reported last month.

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The charitable donations solicited by elected officials are considered “behested payments.” Since 2014, nearly $50 million in behested payments have been reported — a whopping sum. The vast majority of that money was solicited by the mayor’s office. Donations of $5,000 and up are supposed to be reported, but there are loopholes and the rules are not strictly enforced. Councilman David Ryu, who has led the push for a ban on developer campaign contributions, proposed a similar prohibition on developers’ behested payments.

Ethics Commission staffers have proposed several options for tightening the rules on behested payments, including mandating more disclosure. But again, a ban is the best way to put the kibosh on a practice that allows moneyed interests to spend thousands — even millions — of dollars to curry favor with elected officials. The staff’s proposed ban would cover developers, lobbyists and companies with city contracts, and it would apply when either elected officials seek a donation or their staff members do so on behalf of his or her boss.

Banning behested payments wouldn’t prevent companies from donating to nonprofits or supporting community events in Los Angeles on their own initiative. Nor would it stop elected officials from asking the general public to support some general cause, like, say, cancer research. The point isn’t to block philanthropic giving. It’s to stop the transactional politics that have left a cloud of corruption hanging over City Hall. No, these bans won’t eliminate corruption or vanquish the decades-old pay-to-play culture of L.A. politics. But these are vital steps toward a more transparent, responsible city government.

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