The last meeting of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission was more frustrating than usual.
The five of us gathered in a City Hall hearing room on Tuesday, Feb. 13 for our monthly get together. A blue binder with all the matters before us had been delivered to our homes a few days before, giving us plenty of time to read up,
I thought we had a light agenda, but I was wrong. That was clear when we hit agenda item number one, “In the matter of Regency Outdoor Advertising, Inc. and Brian Kennedy.”
At an earlier meeting, we had devoted considerable time to the case against Kennedy, who is well known in local politics for his campaign contributions and his aggressive pursuit of billboard business in the face of government regulators. From what I had read about him in the papers,it sounds like you don’t want to get in his way.
He had been accused of failing to notify the ethics commission staff of putting up billboards on behalf of candidates in the 2001 city election and of not putting a notice on some of the billboards saying that his independent expenditure paid for them. We had turned his case over to a state administrative law judge, who held a long hearing. Since we’re part timers, we frequently do that so we won’t be tied up for days at a time.
The judge found that Kennedy had violated the law but didn’t intend to deceive anyone. He recommended a fine. Like my fellow commissioners, I read through the transcript of the hearing before the judge and other documents.
I agreed with the judge. Kennedy’s role had been in the newspapers before the election. I’d read the stories. This guy is well known, the kind of person always in the sights of regulators and reporters. But I didn’t see that he had concealed anything. My fellow commissioners saw it differently and voted to increase the fine over what the judge recommended. The vote was 4-1. Game over, I thought.
Game not over. Game never over. On our Feb. 13 agenda was what seemed to be routine motion implementing our previous decision. I thought it would be quick and easy. But Kennedy’s lawyer, Ronald B. Turovsky and our lawyer-director of enforcement, Deena R. Ghaly, argued fiercely and at length over the wording of the motion. Neither side would surrender.
We finally disposed of the thing. At least I think so. The argument went way over my head. It was so nuanced, disputatious and legalistic, in fact, that I am sure I have missed important nuances in writing this report.
We spend a lot of time on law enforcement. We should work on public policy, figuring out better ways to finance campaigns and to improve the political process. We have a creative, experienced policy staff, one of the best in city hall. But this staff doesn’t get the chance it deserves. As a result, all we’re known for is enforcement. Our positive side seldom gets a chance for the spotlight.