CityWatch, Oct 4, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 79
RETHINKING LA - "Conflict of Interest" charges are fighting words and those who stand accused of serving two masters often find themselves in an uphill battle to defend their honor, their careers, and even their lives.
Ethical clouds have hung over LA’s City Hall for generations, sometimes wispy and prompted by rumor and other times dark and supported by criminal allegations. Political regimes have toppled, reform movements have taken steps to ensure impartiality, and through it all, controversy follows those who speak on behalf of the people of Los Angeles.
The recent Congress of Neighborhoods at LA’s City Hall included training sessions for neighborhood councils on ethics, including conflict of interest and the Brown Act. Perhaps it’s the relentless oversight of community members that has prompted some neighborhood activists to turn it around and reexamine the actions of our current Mayor and City Councilmembers.
Over the course of history, a betrayal of loyalties has consistently been considered one of the most serious crimes against a community and the penalties are typically severe, ranging from excommunication and banishment to imprisonment and execution.
Efforts to ensure loyalty have ranged from dangerous physical challenges in battle and co-mingled bloodlines to public oaths and legal contracts but no single effort has been able to prevent betrayal from entering the battlefield, the courtroom, the sporting arena, the boardroom, council chambers, and the negotiating room.
The art of the double-deal is as old as the act of negotiation itself and some of our wisest and most revered of strategists have included elements of deception and subversion in their counsel, but that doesn’t make it right, it simply makes it common.
On the one hand, the artful manipulation of loyalties carries with it the seductive glamour of a James Bond movie but in reality, the art of the double-cross is less about “the deal” and more about “the betrayal” and the sale of allegiance to the highest bidder.
The people of Los Angeles are surrounded by measures that are in place to ensure that those who act on their behalf are doing so openly, honestly, and impartially. At the same time, there are those who charge that the net is full of holes and only serves to keep honest people honest while the dishonest simply grow more powerful and wealthy.
In sports, professional athletes are forbidden from associating with gamblers and members of organized crime in an effort to ensure that those competing in sporting events are actually competing and not influencing the outcome for financial gain. Baseball’s Pete Rose was denied his place in the Hall of Fame because he served two masters, one was baseball, the other was a bookie.
In legal circles, professionals are held to a high standard that restricts an attorney or a firm from representing any other party with interests adverse to those of a current client.
In local government, elected officials are required to recuse themselves from any negotiations or actions that would benefit them financially. This can include direct benefits as well as benefits to a company or cause that has contributed to the politician.
LA County’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO) recently found itself immobilized by contributions when a large developer brought a huge contract before the Board, only to find the entire Board subject to conflict of interest charges because of the liberal contributions that had preceded the contract. The METRO Board, unable to move forward without a vote, chose to invoke the “Hayden Rule” which they defined as “the drawing of straws to select a representative group from the recused members,” providing a randomness that ensured no “conflict of interest.”
METRO went forward, allowing all members of the Board to keep the developer contributions, allowing the Board to vote on the contract, allowing the Developer to benefit from the approved contract, and motivating a member of the audience to call Tom Hayden who was surprised to be credited with the legal “workaround” saying he had never heard of it.
Political figures in LA’s City Hall are regulated on a few different levels, from the Fair Political Practices Commission at the state level to the Ethics Commission at the city level. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ran afoul of both organizations when he accepted tickets to sports and entertainment events but failed to disclose the gifts as required.
Developer Rick Caruso recently made the news when he resigned from the Coliseum Commission amid charges that he serves two masters, one being the Coliseum Board and the other being USC where he serves as a trustee. USC’s football team is the Coliseum’s largest tenant and the proposed “master lease” would give more control over the Coliseum to USC.
City Councilman Bernard Parks, also on the Coliseum Commission, opposed Caruso’s participation in the USC contract talks and is fighting USC’s efforts, claiming that a private school should not have control over a publicly owned stadium.
On the other side of town, City Councilman Ed Reyes on the receiving end found himself of a complaint that charged him with serving two masters in violation of a state law designed to prevent public officials from also serving on boards, commissions, city councils and other governing bodies that may have interests that clash.
Reyes resigned from the Metro Gold Line Foothill Construction Authority at the urging of deputy city attorneys, who advised “it was less risky to his position as councilman to resign from the Gold Line board should the attorney general conclude that he holds incompatible offices.”
The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition was the most recent setting for “conflict of interest” charges, coming in the midst of debate over local development issues and the city’s municipal budget.
A presentation on Farmers Field and the AEG’s proposal to move the convention center in the process of bringing a football team to LA drew great debate, most of which revolved around the terms of the deal and the risk to the people of LA. The rigorous debate was best summed up by a community activist who bellowed “Let’s get ready for some Football!” on the condition that any member of the AEG team be expressly forbidden from contributing funds to any politician anywhere in the City of LA, the County of LA, or the State of California. “Only then will the people of LA stand a fair chance of a level playing field.”
This was followed by a speaker who pointed out that the City of LA regularly engages in negotiations with the City’s Union representatives, people who also contribute campaign funds to those who run for office and who represent the people of LA.
“How can the Mayor, the City Council, and the City Attorney represent the people of Los Angeles,” the budget activist asked, “if they are negotiating with Unions who have directly contributed to their political campaigns?”
One might suggest that it cuts both ways, even a Councilmember who was not on the receiving end of Union campaign contributions would lack an impartial position if the Union contributed to their opponent and/or campaigned on behalf of their opponent.
Through it all, the City Attorney is elected by the people of Los Angeles, in a campaign that is fueled by contributions from many special interests, to a position that legally represents “the City, its departments, commissions, and employees in civil litigation and transactions.”
Representatives of LA;s City Attorney frequently remind the people of Los Angeles that it is the Corporate City that is the client, not the people of Los Angeles.
Which master does the City Attorney serve as he takes his place at the table, next to the Mayor and the City Councilmembers, and proceeds to negotiate contracts that benefit the employees of LA while the people of LA aren’t considered “the client” and aren’t invited to the process.
It is imperative that the Mayor and the City Council clearly identify the master they serve. If money has changed hands, they must acknowledge the ethical cloud that follows the money and they must recuse themselves from the negotiations.
Lawyers can lose their licenses for violating specific standards that prevent even the impression of conflict. Athletes can lose their ability to compete just for communicating with known gamblers. Business licenses can be revoked if the operators are found to associate with members of organized crime.
Yet when it comes to LA’s City Hall, the people who are making decisions on behalf of the people of Los Angeles are negotiating with people who have contributed to their political careers. It’s time to take the money off the table and to ask those in City Hall the tough question, “Who are you really working for?”
Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net .)