Exceptions Fill Mayoral Candidates' War Chests

*Hahn's and Villaraigosa's L.A. "independent expenditures" funds are worth $864,000 and $500,000.

By David Zahniser, Copley News Service

In theory, the Los Angeles mayoral election is supposed to be regulated by campaign contribution limits, with each donor giving a candidate no more than $1,000 in each election cycle.

In reality, the two candidates for mayor are the beneficiaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars in "independent expenditures," exceptions to those limits that are legally permissible as long as the candidate is not involved in spending the money.

Mayor James Hahn has received $864,000 in independent expenditures so far in the May 17 runoff election, the bulk of it from city employee unions. Nearly one-third came from United Firefighters of Los Angeles, the union whose president is also the brother of Hahn's chief of staff.

Hahn's opponent, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, has benefited from $500,000 in independent expenditures so far. Leading that charge is another set of employee unions, as well as Richard Meruelo, a developer based in Florida and Los Angeles.

Because they exceed the $1,000 limit, the independent expenditures -- sometimes known as "IEs" -- dwarf the contributions sent in by individual citizens or businesses. That, in turn, threatens to eradicate the level playing field sought by city officials when they approved the contribution limits a decade ago, Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said.

"I am a strong believer in public financing, in (spending) limits, caps and reasonableness," Miscikowski said. "And IEs are blowing that out of the water."

Meruelo has spent more than $82,000 on campaign materials for Villaraigosa, including a mass mailer sent to Republican voters in the San Fernando Valley with an image of former Mayor Richard Riordan on it. Meruelo's latest expenditure, reported to the Ethics Commission on Friday, was $4,100 worth of prerecorded telephone calls featuring the voice of Tirso del Junco, former head of the California Republican Party.

Unions have been even more aggressive, overseeing the kinds of activities that were once handled by campaign staffers -- producing radio commercials, print mailers and other campaign ads.

On the Villaraigosa side, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- which represents Department of Water and Power employees -- reported Monday that it has bought $200,000 worth of radio commercials. That sum immediately topped the roughly $75,000 spent on Villaraigosa by the Engineers and Architects Association, another city union.

On the Hahn side, Service Employees International Union Local 434B, which represents in-home health workers, has spent $274,800 on Hahn's re-election. United Firefighters of Los Angeles devoted slightly less, spending $270,080 so far on mailers and other campaign propaganda.

The union donations have become so large that either candidate will be hard-pressed to resist calls for higher salaries for municipal workers, even if the city can't afford it, said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

"It's another example of the unions wielding an inordinate influence over public officials," he said. "And certainly their goal is to elect their people so that when it comes time for contract negotiations, they'll have representatives on both sides of the table."

But firefighters union President Pat McOsker said his group has a right to advocate on behalf of its favored candidate. This year, the group is trying to spread the word about Hahn's success at adding paramedics and ambulances, he said.

"I would say that working people ought to be allowed to participate in politics just like anybody else," McOsker said.

Villaraigosa campaign aides argued that their candidate has already shown independence from unions, by opposing Hahn's $11 billion plan for overhauling Los Angeles International Airport and working to end a bus strike in 2003.

"I think that he's shown in his record over the past decade that he's more concerned about getting things done than favoring one group over another," said campaign spokesman Nathan James.

Under state law, an independent expenditure cannot be given to or at the request of the candidate who benefits from it, said Robert Stern, who heads the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit group that monitors campaign finance. The donor cannot tell the candidate about the expenditure or allow the candidate to influence the way in which the money is spent.

While the City Council may have hoped to level the playing field by limiting contributions, the Supreme Court determined that such a goal is not a compelling enough reason to bar independent expenditures, Stern added.

"The court basically said you can limit (regular) contributions because they create at least the appearance of corruption, or may be actual corruption," he said. "But you can't limit IEs because they don't create that appearance. Now I disagree with the Supreme Court, but it's the U.S. Supreme Court saying it."

How independent the contributions truly are is a subject of debate. Meruelo, for example, attended two fund-raisers for Villaraigosa in Miami last month, even as he made weekly expenditures that were supposed to be separate from the councilman's campaign.

McOsker, meanwhile, is the brother of San Pedro resident Tim McOsker -- Hahn's No. 1 staffer. The union president insisted that his group has operated independently from the mayor's re-election bid.

"We haven't talked to anyone in their campaign about anything we're doing with our campaign, and they haven't talked to us about theirs," he said.

Miscikowski, who is supporting Hahn, has had numerous fund-raisers at the Brentwood home she shares with her husband, developer Doug Ring, who is backing Villaraigosa. The councilwoman said that over the years, she has turned down requests to make independent expenditures on behalf of particular candidates. "I think it really does diminish the impact of the level playing field," she said.


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