GLENDALE — For proponents of stronger conflict-of-interest regulations for local elected officials, revelations surrounding several of the city’s public housing projects have bolstered their cause.
An affordable housing developer that’s the subject of a federal fraud investigation funneled tens of thousands of campaign dollars to Glendale council members through a network of subcontractors, according to a Los Angeles Times and Glendale News-Press investigation published last week. Some of the subcontractors told The Times that they were pressured to donate to certain campaigns or lose work.
Some subcontractors for the developer, Advanced Development & Investment Inc., also performed remodeling work on Councilman John Drayman’s condo and gave what he called a payment plan that was “not the norm” — although he has insisted he did not know of the ADI connection.
ADI is under federal investigation for allegedly transferring millions of dollars to personal accounts and overbilling cities across the state for construction costs on its housing projects.
Campaign finance records show that in the two years leading up to the 2009 council election, nearly one of every four dollars received by the top four candidates for the City Council — more than $100,000 in total — came from ADI subcontractors, their employees and those employees’ relatives. Collectively, those donations outstripped any other known source in the race.
Council members have countered that they were not influenced in any way by campaign contributions or even knew of donor links to ADI, citing that it is extremely difficult for a candidate to find potential conflicts among hundreds of donations.
“It never occurred to me,” said Councilwoman Laura Freidman, who received $16,000 from ADI subcontractors — about two-thirds of which came from those based in Glendale. “You get a donation from a business in the city. Why would you think anything of it?”
Jessica Levinson — director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan think tank — acknowledged both the burden and importance of candidates knowing where their money comes from.
“On the one side, you should be able to run for office without having a professional team of campaign finance lawyers,” she said. “On the other hand, there is a very strong public interest in knowing this information, in having this information.”
In an effort to increase transparency at City Hall, Mayor Ara Najarian, who received $27,000 from ADI subcontractors and their family members during the 2009 election cycle, has in recent years pushed for tightening Glendale’s ethics rules.
Last fall, Najarian moved to return the discussion to the City Council agenda once again.
Last week, he said he also hopes the recent revelations will convince others on the dais that reform is needed “to just keep the money as best as we can out of the decision-making process so that there isn’t even the appearance of some of the things that we saw in the L.A. Times article.”
Joan Hardie, co-president of the Glendale-Burbank chapter of the League of Women Voters, went a step further.
“This is a perfect situation of where public financing would make so much sense because then you wouldn’t have all these conflicts of interest,” she said. “It is hard for candidates who are running campaigns to look at every single donator.”
Glendale City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian said the implementation of codes similar to those in place in Santa Monica and Pasadena would make it possible for Glendale candidates to better track their campaign donors.
“Other cities have very strict laws and the resources to back them up,” he said. “We need a conflict-of-interest code that targets the influence of money in politics, but we also need to allocate the resources necessary to monitor contributions and gifts. “
Pasadena’s Taxpayer Protection Act, passed in 2001 by voters who later amended the measure in 2006, requires the city to track and maintain information related to contracts, purchase orders, permits and various other city transactions.
The Pasadena city clerk’s office continually updates the city’s website with lists of companies and their employees that could constitute a conflict of interest for public officials.
But because Pasadena doesn’t include subcontractors, Glendale would have to go further.
“The response I’ve received when I’ve talked to officials at City Hall is that there really hasn’t been a great need for this,” Kassakhian said. “I think that there has always been a need. I think this highlights the reasons why.”