After realizing that his own little ethics scandal isn't going away, Antonio Villaraigosa announced Thursday he will return the $1,000 checks donated to his campaign by employees of two Florida firms (Travel Traders LLC and S.E. Florida Investments) and their relatives. As David Zahniser reported in Wednesday's Daily Breeze, the few donors who have spoken publicly didn't seem to know much about Villaraigosa or want to talk about why they appear on his disclosure sheets. The Times reported yesterday that some checks came in the day after Villaraigosa met with Sean Anderson, president of Travel Traders, and City Hall lobbyist Art Gastelum. And a few days after Anderson made a contribution, Villaraigosa tried to block a rival firm from getting a lucrative contract to run gift shops at LAX (Anderson apparently wants that business.)
Villaraigosa's people say it's all innocent and the contributions are being returned out of "an abundance of caution," but they refused to give reporters more details about how or why the contributions were made. Times columnist Steve Lopez today points out how lame Villaraigosa and campaign manager Ace Smith sound, especially when they claim that the Floridians wrote checks out of concern that Los Angeles is adrift under Mayor Jim Hahn:
"I'm only going to say this once more. Are you ready, Antonio and Ace? THEY'RE FROM FLORIDA!"
The questions — dare we call it Floridagate? — pretty much swamped the message that Villaraigosa hoped would dominate the news cycle, that he was endorsed yesterday by former Hahn backer Alex Padilla, president of the City Council. That should have been pretty big news.
Hahn, of course, is delighted by the new cloud over Villaraigosa, who has hammered the mayor incessantly over the investigations into pay-to-play allegations and fines levied against contributors to earlier Hahn campaigns — for allegedly laundering their campaign cash through employees. Incidentally, despite six credit lines, the Times story never actually says how much money Villaraigosa will return, but everybody else agrees it's $47,000. Times, Daily News, Associated Press, Daily Breeze. (Reminder, the Daily Breeze posts its stories online several hours after the other papers.)