LA Mayor Faces Fines For Freebies

California’s campaign finance watchdog on Friday recommended the largest combined fine in the agency’s history – more than $40,000 – against Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, saying he failed to report free tickets to dozens of sporting and entertainment events, ranging from the finals of “American Idol” to Los Angeles Lakers games.

The action was published Friday by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which will consider the matter at its April 11 board meeting.

The recommendation is a result of a joint investigation by the state agency and the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Each agency is recommending fines of roughly an equal amount – $21,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for 21 counts for ethics violations, and $20,849 for the remaining 12 counts by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If approved, the proposed joint stipulation entered into by Mayor Villaraigosa and the Fair Political Practices Commission and the LA Ethics Commission would be the largest ethics fine in the history of the FPPC,” said Roman Porter, the state agency’s executive director.

He said the mayor has agreed to the fine. In a statement, Villaraigosa said the violations were unintentional and that he did not consider the tickets as gifts. Rather, the mayor said he attended the events in his official capacity as mayor.

He said he attended more 3,000 events during the timeframe identified by both commissions – from when he took office in 2005 through 2010 – and that the violations represent just a fraction of his public appearances.

In 2010, the city commission voted to prohibit all elected officials from accepting free tickets to events if the donor has business before the city. That action came after Villaraigosa acknowledged he had accepted tickets to events such as the Academy Awards, “American Idol” finals, a Spice Girls concert and Los Angeles Lakers and Dodgers games.

Elected officials typically must report gifts they receive to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest on public matters they will decide.

The documents posted Friday on the state agency website listed 33 total violations by Villaraigosa, 12 of which were gifts from restricted sources in excess of the $100 annual limit in the Los Angeles Municipal Code.

The tickets came from companies that employed lobbyists or had permits approved by the City Council. Among them were the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Anschutz Entertainment Group, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

The 21 counts for violating the state’s Fair Political Practices Act were levied because the mayor did report gifts in excess of the $50 limit on his required statements of economic interest. Those violations could have carried a maximum penalty of $105,000, but the state staff recommended a lesser fine, citing Villaraigosa’s “lack of prior enforcement history … his full cooperation and candor during the investigation of this matter, and his willingness to admit liability and be held accountable for his violations.”

Nevertheless, the state agency staff said the mayor should have known better than to accept the gifts, which included multiple Los Angeles Dodgers games, concerts by Aretha Franklin, Shakira and others, and award shows ranging from the Grammys to the Golden Globes

“Villaraigosa has been in office in one capacity or another for almost 20 years. He has received ethics training regarding the rules of gift disclosure on numerous occasions over the span of his career,” the staff wrote.

He also could have sought legal advice from state and local ethics commissions, the staff said.

The $41,849 fine leveled against Villaraigosa by the state and city ethics commissions exceeds the previous record fine issued against a politician by the state. In 2005, the Fair Political Practices Commission fined Eileen McDonald $29,000 for conflicts of interest while she was a member of the Newark Unified School District board.