There has long been more than a whiff of pay-to-play politics in Los Angeles. But the latest scandal brewing in City Hall has left the stench of corruption. Will this be the one that finally convinces city leaders to get serious about ethics reform?
Last month, FBI agents raided the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar. The bureau won’t say what it is investigating. However, Times reporters dug up troubling allegations that the councilman had asked companies that do business with City Hall to donate to a private school where his wife was working as a professional fundraiser, and that he assigned his staff to help with the effort.
Huizar represents downtown Los Angeles, which has been in a building boom over the last decade. And until recently, when he was removed after the FBI raids, Huizar was chairman of the powerful Planning and Land Use Committee that makes key decisions on some of the city’s most important real estate policies and development decisions.
And surprise, surprise. The donations that poured in while Huizar’s wife, Richelle, was employed as a fundraiser at Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights came overwhelmingly from real estate developers, billboard companies, engineering firms and others who were seeking or had received favorable votes from her husband. The grateful school credited Richelle Huizar with making connections with “the business world and downtown.”
Under current law, there’s nothing illegal per se with elected officials shaking down companies that have business pending before City Hall and asking them to donate to a favorite charity. Mayor Eric Garcetti has done it. So has Gov. Jerry Brown. But officials are required to report fundraising that results in donations of $5,000 or more. Huizar didn’t file any such reports.
What’s more, it is legally and ethically questionable for an elected official to ask for donations to a charity in which his spouse is employed as a fundraiser. It’s also problematic — and potentially a crime — for an elected official to direct city employees to solicit donations to benefit his spouse. A spouse, by the way, who was being groomed to replace Huizar when his terms ends in 2020. Richelle Huizar dropped her City Council campaign after the FBI raids.
Whether Huizar will ultimately face charges or penalties is for the authorities to decide. But the whole situation reeks of a kind of soft corruption that is far too common in City Hall.
It's no secret that elected officials solicit contributions from companies and individuals with business in the city — or that companies give heavily to local officials, presumably because they believe the contributions will help them get their projects approved, or get favorable policies adopted. They sometimes give to the officials’ campaign funds or they make independent campaign expenditures on the officials’ behalf or they contribute to the officials’ favorite charities.
Elected officials usually insist that these contributions don’t influence their votes. You can believe that or not, but the mere exchange of money between the people seeking potentially lucrative city approvals and the people granting it inevitably creates the appearance of a quid pro quo.
City leaders have been slow to enact reforms to restore trust. There’s been little discussion of putting a limit on fundraising for outside charities. There’s been no real movement on calls by activists groups to ban, or at least require disclosure, of private, or ex parte, communication between developers and elected officials who will vote on projects.
There is a ban on campaign contributions from companies that have or are seeking contracts with the city. But it’s been nearly two years since five L.A. City Council members proposed banning campaign contributions from real estate developers seeking city approval for their projects.
That ban should be approved. It would help restore faith in the system (although the proposal wouldn’t prohibit a charitable donation from a developer made at an official's request). The Ethics Commission is still squabbling over the details.
City leaders only started discussing ethics and campaign finance changes in the wake of a 2016 Times investigation into an L.A. developer accused of making illegal donations to local politicians while pushing for them to support his $72-million Sea Breeze apartment project, and after a bitter campaign over a slow-growth ballot initiative that would cut elected officials’ power over development decisions.