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L.A. Mayor and Four Councilman Violate City Ethics Ordinance

Villaraigosa Fails to Disclose Ethical Lapses in Judgment

The L.A. City Ethics Commission approved fines on April 12, 2011 for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and four city councilmen for accepting gifts in violation of Section 49.5 of the L.A. Municipal Code. The commission fined Vallaraigosa $20,849 for failing to report free tickets to more than two dozen sports and entertainment events. The fine comes a day after California’s political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, approved a $21,000 fine for similar activity. CNN Justice online reporters Michael Martinez and Jacqueline Hurtado reported that the mayor defended his “failure to report admission to 34 of the 3,000 civic events he attended between 2005 and 2010 because it was ‘unintentional.’ ” Villaraigosa was quoted as saying “[H]he believed the tickets weren’t gifts” (see:  www.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/04/12/california.councilmen.ethics/).

Is ignorance of the law a valid ethical explanation for violating the law? Even if Villaraigosa was unaware of his legal obligation to report, the L.A. City Ethics Commission publication Gift Limits and Restrictions for City Officials clearly states that: "For any gift from a source that is reportable, the official receiving a gift valued at $50 or more must report that gift on his or her next Statement of Economic Interests." The list of commonly reportable gifts includes tickets to sporting and entertainment events.

Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant posited the categorical imperative that an agent should: "Act only according to the maxim [rule of conduct] whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." The universality test of whether an intended action meets the categorical imperative is for the  agent to evaluate the reasons (i.e., motivation) for action. If everyone in a similar position were to follow the same maxim that the agent intends to follow and no contradiction or irrationalities arise as a result of following it, then acting on that maxim is permissible, and in some instances required.

In simple terms, a universality perspective would examine what might happen if everyone in the position of a mayor or city councilperson were to accept free tickets to sporting events, awards ceremonies, and other freebies that come from a group with commercial interests affecting the city. If everyone in a similar position accepted such favored treatment, then the result may be a corrupt system wherein public officials make decisions that favor the gift givers over other competing interests.

Villaraigosa's actions have been scrutinized for his failure to disclose gifts as required by law, but he may have actually violated the law in spirit if not in reality. Section 49.5.5 precludes a city official from using his or her office or position "in any manner intended to induce or coerce any person to provide, directly or indirectly, anything of value which shall accrue to the private advantage, benefit, or economic gain, of the city official." I do not mean to imply that the mayor threatened retaliatory action if he did not receive Lakers tickets or admission to the Academy Awards. However, his past predilections were well known and such behavior may have caused certain gift donors to provide free tickets even if not directly requested by Villaraigosa or his staff.

The ethical issue is one of avoiding even the appearance that a donor group may be treated favorably or regulated more loosely than other groups. The acceptance of free tickets and other gifts, especially over a long period of time as in the case of Villaraigosa, can have a corrosive effect on objectivity and judgment. Over time decisions might be made based on subtle biases. For example, the mayor may devote more of his time and attention to matters affecting the entertainment industry than to the interests of the construction industry in L.A. When the mayor signals out one group by attending its events it gives the appearance of being more sensitive to that group's interests even if only on an image-conscious basis -- but that's what L.A. is all about.

Should we forgive Villaraigosa for his lapse in judgment and for taking responsibility for his actions albeit after he got caught? I looked over his Statement of Economic Interests disclosures on Form 700 that was filed with the L.A. City Ethics Commission on April 4, 2011, and I found it quite troubling. At the least the mayor is completely insensitive to the perception that he can be bought and he seems oblivious to the struggles of so many Californians to make ends meet. Why didn't he ask the businesses and people that gave him free tickets, alcohol, books and other goodies to donate the funds to a charitable cause? Probably because that is not the way his mind works. The mayor is driven to pursue his self-interests without regard to the interests of others or to appearances to the public that he has sworn to serve.

Here are some examples of the disclosures on the 2010 Form 700:

  • $4,800 from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences
  • $4,400 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
  • $3,500 from Jeffrey Katzenberg for L.A. Lakers tickets
  • $1,200 from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for Golden Globe tickets

These are the big ticket items. There are 46 items valued at $300 or less including: (1) $300 for three collectible baseballs; (2) 3 ties ($160, $148 and $100); (3) a $270 camera system; (4) $100 basket of Belize products; (5) $59.80 for chicken soup books; and (6) about $500 in gifts of food and acohlic beverages.

The ethical bottom line can be summed up as follows: There is a difference between knowing what you have a right to do and what is the right thing to do. Villaraigosa had the right to accept the gifts under the law, with proper disclosure, but it was the wrong thing to do especially since he did not play a ceremonial role or function.

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 14, 2011