The $31,000 Question


Imagine you're running for mayor of Los Angeles and a reporter discovers that at least 20 employees at two related Florida companies have, combined, donated about $31,000 to your campaign. The reporter telephones these contributors â€" whose donations, thanks to city law, are public record â€" and finds that some of them can't explain why they gave $1,000 to a politician running for office in a city 3,000 miles away and others can't even remember writing a check. So the reporter asks you why these folks in Florida would give you so much money.

You reply:

(a) "If there are questions about contributions, we will look into them immediately and take action."

(b) "They think it's time for a change. People are supporting me because people have seen over the last four years we have an administration that's adrift."

(c) "I don't know that anybody's shown that anybody's done anything wrong yet."

Anyone with an ounce of sense can tell you that the best response under these circumstances is "a." It was the answer delivered in writing by Ace Smith, campaign manager for City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running for mayor and did face that question this week.

But before Smith could get to him, Villaraigosa himself answered "b," a peculiar response that managed to be both relentlessly "on message" and completely off target. (We'll get to "c" in a bit). What kind of change, exactly, would these Florida workers want that a future mayor of Los Angeles could deliver?

That is the $31,000 question.

A quick primer on Los Angeles campaign finance laws: It is not illegal for multiple employees of a company to donate to the same candidate. It is not illegal for a company that does or wants to do business with a city to contribute to a candidate either. It is illegal to pressure employees to donate or to reimburse them to get around city laws capping campaign contributions.

We're not saying that's what happened here. But when two dozen employees of an out-of-town company whose president once held a lucrative concessions contract at Los Angeles International Airport make contributions that many can't remember and few can explain, it does tend to raise a red flag. And if it raises that flag for reporters, it should have done the same for Villaraigosa and Smith, who finally had the sense late Thursday to just send the money back.

Mayor James K. Hahn, who specializes in calling the kettle black, wasted no time in asking the city Ethics Commission to look into the Villaraigosa contributions. The mayor's response to questions about criminal investigations into his own administration's fundraising and contracting practices, by the way, was "c." Memo to his campaign staff: It would probably sound better if he dropped the "yet."

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

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