The Bungling Boondoggle of Behested Payments

On May 22, the City Council approved a motion that could lead to a drastic change in political campaign donations in Los Angeles. If everything goes as these things normally do, then we should see a significant tightening of the rules and improving of the system in about six to eight nevers.

I hate to be cynical, but it’s only logical to expect the council to break the record for slow-walking a piece of unloved legislation. Just consider the framework: We’re asking City Council members, whose political livelihood depends on receiving buckets of campaign donations from people they work with, to be in charge of altering the process of receiving buckets of campaign donations from people they work with.

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This is like asking a scuba diver to consider coming up with an alternate form of breathing while he — and I write “he” because the L.A. City Council still has 13 men and only two women, which is a whole other problem — is 25 feet underwater and staying alive thanks to a rubber tube, a mouthpiece and an oxygen canister. Sure, he may be game to create a better apparatus, but if the current one gives him what he needs, then change isn’t coming until he has resurfaced and is chilling on a lounge chair with a margarita, and someone else is submerged.

The idea of campaign finance reform in Los Angeles is just about the simplest thing that ever got deliberately misinterpreted as a really complex thing. Ultimately the solution should take about 10 minutes and involve two basic components: 1) logic, and 2) a consideration of what would enhance public trust.

The primary topic of conversation in finance reform involves a proposed ban on contributions from developers who have projects before the city. Of course these should be prohibited, as the practice of elected officials going thumbs up or down to someone who gives money — or opts not to give — when they need something approved doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks of pay-to-play.

The more interesting element in the motion pushed by Fourth District Councilman David Ryu concerns behested payments, or donations that office holders solicit to benefit charitable organizations. A host of local politicians are already vigorously protesting any tightening, which means it’s probably worth considering, if not passing immediately.

Helping Monkey Island

As with almost everything in City Hall that causes raised eyebrows these days, the idea of addressing behested payments pops up because of the travails of 14th District Councilman José Huizar. Ever since the FBI raided his home and offices last November, people have been speculating about what Huizar may have done (no arrests have been made and no charges have been filed). The L.A. Times on Nov. 30 reported that his wife, Richelle Huizar, had been a paid fundraiser at the councilman’s alma mater, Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights, and that real estate developers, billboard companies and other entities with business before the city had donated big bucks to the school. (Richelle Huizar launched a campaign for her husband’s seat last September, then dropped out two months later.)

For Team Huizar, Winter Is Here

Los Angeles politicians, like all politicians going back to Nero, have used their influence to raise money for their favorite charities (I admit I didn’t fact check the Nero part). While it’s hard to begrudge any worthy nonprofit of a needed infusion of cash, this is a murky wink-wink world with plenty of room for exploitation. In the darkest path, funds donated to a charity work their way back to an officeholder or that person’s spouse or another family member. Or maybe an elected official leaves office and winds up later working at said favored charity. There are all sorts of creative ways to mess with things.

Behested payments are big in L.A. The City Ethics Commission in February proposed a suite of campaign finance regulations and also documented local behested payments. It found that, in a five-year period since January 2014, a total of 597 behested payments worth $49.7 million were made in the city. About $26 million, or 52% of these, came from lobbyists, contractors or others with business before the city.

I like the idea of behested payments because they sound like something from royal times. I can just imagine an aristocrat in a powdered wig and shoes with silver buckles bending before the throne and stating, “Sire, I heed your bequest to donate 10,000 pieces of gold to the Monkey Island charity. I thank my lord for the opportunity.”

A modern behested payment probably starts with a phone call from a politician or his representative to a developer, consultant, fixer, lobbyist or businessperson. It then goes something like:

Politician: Rich dude! How’s it going?

Rich Dude: Great! Just trying to move my project forward. What can I do for you today, Mr. Powerful Politician?   

Politician: As you know, I’ve always been a big supporter of Monkey Island. They do great work for monkeys. And islands. They’re having their fundraiser next month, and I was hoping you might make a donation, possibly at the Gold Level. You get a free monkey with that.

Rich Dude: I’m always happy to support your causes Mr. Powerful Politician. But I don’t need the monkey. Just send the information over to my assistant and we’ll get a check out.

Politician: Thanks. And keep me up to date on your union-approved project. I look forward to speaking at the groundbreaking.

Then the phone clicks. The politician makes a checkmark and dials the next number on the list. The Rich Dude directs his assistant to write a four- or five-figure donation from the “Cost of Doing Business in L.A.” account. It’s a very fat account.

Question of Disclosure

A big problem with behested donations is that, in L.A., they don’t have to be disclosed unless they are worth more than $5,000. The Ethics Commission in 2014 sought to get the threshold lowered to $1,000, which would increase transparency, but as the Ethics Commission stated in February, “The City Council declined to implement the recommendation at that time.”

Now the push for a $1,000 limit is on again. Vegas has not yet set odds on its passage, but the smart money is betting on the fail.

Many council members hate the idea of banning or limiting behested payments, and point out how they benefit certain neighborhoods and causes. Eighth District Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson hit that point during a recent Downtown appearance before the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. He was persuasive and impassioned, saying that behested payments in his district allow for Thanksgiving turkey giveaways and help cover the cost of the annual Martin Luther King Day parade.

“The idea that that activity would be in the same category as taking money from a developer who has a project that’s being considered, to me that’s just, one, way beyond the pale,” Harris-Dawson stated, “and totally ignores the conditions in certain parts of the city where there are organizations that frankly wouldn’t exist, or activities that wouldn’t exist without us doing that.”

Harris-Dawson has a point, and no good-government type wants to strangle charitable donations. But there’s a big difference between funding a parade and a politician using his or her clout to compel money to flow to a favored cause — particularly when that very action cements the power of the office holder.

If an elected official calls someone with a “request” to make a donation, and that person even occasionally does business with the city, how can the individual possibly say no? He or she knows that they might need a yes vote in the future, or high-level backing on a tricky project, and will seek to maintain good graces.

I get that the poor-little rich consultant/developer may not evoke sympathies, but why should a council member decide which institutions in the district get connected money? I’m sure numerous schools in Huizar’s territory would benefit from Salesian-sized donations from affluent individuals and businesses, but what happens when they’re not on a council member’s list of pet places? Is that fair?

Even if a politician’s heart is in the right place, the number of L.A. office holders who were elected or re-elected because of their charitable skills is precisely zero. This just isn’t on the public’s list of priorities — we elect politicians to provide safe streets, clean streets, speed bumps on streets and a few things that have nothing to do with streets.

There is a place for giving, but a donation needs to make sense, needs to be about more than ego (think of those huge signs of an office holder’s mug that appear anytime an elected official facilitates an event) and needs to occur in a manner where people on the outside won’t look askance.

Again, it’s not complicated — you know in an instant if something reeks of pay-to-play.

©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019