It hasn’t even been two weeks since the Los Angeles Ethics Commission put our City’s Municipal Lobbying Ordinance in danger of being made meaningless, primarily at the instigation of worst-of-the-bunch Commission Veep Serena Oberstein, with respect to 501(c)(3) nonprofits, so it’s not surprising that all the ramifications of their misfeasance have not yet been completely understood. Along those lines, therefore, here’s another episode from the ethical Twilight Zone in which at least some members of the Commission seem to dwell in these latter days.
You see, Serena Oberstein is not just the City’s most corrupt Ethics Commissioner, what with her sub rosa agenda-pushing for her nonprofit buddies Shyaam Subramanian1 and Nancy Berlin, amongst others, not to mention her refusal to agendize a perfectly reasonable request that her Commission disclose their ex parte communications,2 she’s also the Chief Operating Officer of some Westside do-gooder outfit called Vision to Learn.
And while I had some inchoate notion that her involvement with 501(c)(3) nonprofits might explain at least some of her motivations in the recent fiasco, whereby mostly at Serena Oberstein’s instigation, the Commission ended up recommending to the Council that all 501(c)(3)s with gross annual revenues under $2 million be exempt from registration as lobbyists, I hadn’t taken the time to investigate. But recently it occurred to me to look at Vision to Learn’s3 Form 990s to see how the modifications pushed by Serena Oberstein would affect her employer.4 I published the last few years here on Archive.Org, or you can go directly to the PDFs here:
So take a look at the evidence yourself, or turn the page to see what I found!
First let’s look at Vision to Learn’s total revenues for the years for which it can be determined from the available forms. Note that V2L was only founded in 2011, so we’re missing that first year’s revenues and also 2016 revenues.5
Recall that Serena Oberstein and her whiny-baby little colleagues in the 501(c)(3) community were originally pushing for a blanket exemption for all such nonprofits with gross annual revenues under $2.5 million. Is it a coincidence that Serena Oberstein’s employer falls neatly into that category? I really doubt it.
Now, as a result of politics, the recommended exemption was lowered to $2 million, so that if Serena Oberstein’s organization decides to engage in some lobbying, well, they still wouldn’t have to register under the pending proposal. Perhaps you recall that the Ethics Commission staff had proposed tightening up the current exemption, found in LAMC §48.03(E,F), which presently excludes 501(c)(3)s which have “… the purpose of representing the interests of indigent persons and whose primary purpose is to provide direct services to those persons …”
The staff originally recommended, and you can read the full proposal, that this be rewritten only to exclude ” … 501(c)(3)s that receive government funding and are created primarily to provide basic life assistance to disadvantaged clients at rates that are significantly below market.” Of course, Vision to Learn, which provides eyeglasses to poor schoolkids, wouldn’t be exempt under this proposal. However necessary they are, it’s clear that eyeglasses don’t qualify as “basic life assistance.”
It’s not exactly clear whether they’re exempt from the lobbyist registration requirements under the current law, but there’s no question at all that Vision to Learn would be exempt under the first part of the proposed revision of the law, which would exempt any 501(c)(3) which “[p]rovides assistance, such as food, clothing, shelter, child care, health, legal, vocational, relief, educational, and other similar assistance to disadvantaged people for free or at a significantly below-market rate[.]” So that’s a reason why Serena Oberstein might have so easily caved on the $2.5 million vs. $2 million issue. She knew her organization would be exempt under the other fork of the proposal.
At this point you might well be wondering why she might be so intent on making sure that her employer was exempt from the MLO’s lobbyist registration requirement. Well, I can’t say for sure, of course, but it’s clear that the 501(c)(3)s of Los Angeles attach an inordinate amount of value to being exempt. They’ve lobbied long and hard to get the Commission staff’s proposal to the point where it is now, and even if we can’t know why they care so deeply about most of them being exempt from registration requirements, the fact that they do care is plain to see. it’s plausible that Serena Oberstein shares this unslakable 501(c)(3) lech for being exempt from registration.
It would be shady enough if such a generic concern were all that were driving her effort to gut the MLO as it applies to 501(c)(3)s, but it has occurred to me that it might be possible that there are even shadier motives at work here. A little research and a little thought made me a little less sure about my theory, but the story’s kind of interesting and usefully didactic,6 so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s still not clear that it’s wrong, anyway.
First of all, take a look at the City Charter at §700(d)(5), part of the chapter which defines the powers and duties of the Ethics Commission, and which states: “During his or her tenure, neither a member of the commission nor its Executive Director shall … employ or be employed as a person required to register as a lobbyist with the City of Los Angeles.”
Originally I was thinking that perhaps Serena Oberstein was so intent on gutting the registration requirement as it applies to 501(c)(3)s so that she’d be able to lobby the City on behalf of her employer and still be able to retain her seat on the Commission. After all, the Charter section doesn’t forbid lobbying, or even paid lobbying, for Ethics Commissioners. It just forbids lobbying that triggers a registration requirement.
And, if Serena Oberstein’s dark and bloody plan succeeds when the Commission’s recommendations make it up to the City Council, she’ll never be required to register, no matter how much lobbying she does. And given how pleased the City’s 501(c)(3)s must be with her work as a Commissioner, her being able to remain on the Commission while potentially lobbying for her employer must create real value. Anyway, that was my theory, and I don’t think it’s a bad one. It might even be right!
However, on thinking more deeply about the issue, I started to have some doubts. It’s an interesting fact, and it seems to be fairly little known, but the City’s Government Ethics Ordinance, found at §49.5.1 et seq.,7 has a much more stringent prohibition, which forbids commissioners generally from acting as paid lobbyists even if they’re not required to register. The specific prohibition is found at LAMC §49.5.13(A), and states:
A member of a City board or commission who is required to file statements of economic interests pursuant to the Political Reform Act shall not receive compensation to communicate, either personally or through an agent, with a City official for the purpose of attempting to influence action on a City matter on behalf of a person other than an agency.
As I said, this is far, far more stringent than the Charter at §700(d)(5). There’s no requirement here that a commissioner trigger the MLO’s registration requirement for this law to apply. And the law does cover Serena Oberstein. First of all, she’s obviously a “member of a City board or commission” — She’s the Vice President of the Ethics Commission.
And not only that, but she “is required to file statements of economic interests pursuant to the Political Reform Act.” This can be deduced from the fact that she actually did file a Form 700 as part of her preconfirmation process in 2014.8 You can see see the form here.9 If you’re interested in this kind of thing, the whole Council File is worth looking at. It’s CF 14-1298.
Thus, whether she’s ever required to register as a lobbyist or not, whether the 501(c)(3) that employs her is exempt from registration requirements due to her shady sneaking, even if all that, nevertheless as long as she’s on the Ethics Commission, Serena Oberstein is absolutely not allowed to “…receive compensation to communicate, either personally or through an agent, with a City official for the purpose of attempting to influence action on a City matter on behalf of a person other than an agency.”
So if her goal in pushing a revision of the MLO that would allow her employer to be exempt from lobbying registration requirements was to allow herself to be able to lobby on her employer’s behalf without having to relinquish her evidently quite valuable seat on the Commission, she didn’t manage to pull it off. Saving my theory, at this point, would require some fancy dancing around the idea of her knowing about one law but not about the other and such-like no-proof-available nonsense. Well, I bet you can do that kind of stuff as well as I can, so I’m just going to sign off here.
Image of Serena Oberstein is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and is a transfromogro of this lil friend right here.
- Who was actually required to register as a lobbyist in October 2017, seemingly solely due to his lobbying of Serena Oberstein and her co-Commissioners with respect to this whole nonprofit lobbying registration fiasco. Here’s a link to his registration form.
- Many if not most of which are with her, I really believe. I’d be more than pleased to quantify precisely how many of these ex parte communications were with her and even to be proved wrong with actual data, but because of her bloody-minded obstructionist refusal to agendize and promote my proposal, there’s no way to do so. Note, also, that I realize that Serena Oberstein isn’t alone in not agendizing the matter. But, on information and belief, it certainly seems plausible that one Commissioner alone has the power to agendize a matter. If not, certainly the others, if only out of respect, would be willing to go along with agendizing something. Actually, now that I think of it, it probably has to be the case that one Commissioner can place a matter on the agenda. There’s no executive committee, and it’s a violation of the Brown Act for them to discuss and/or decide what to agendize outside of a public meeting. The only solution to this problem that I can see is to allow a single Commissioner to place items on the agenda. If I’m wrong, I’d love to learn about it. Drop me a line or leave a comment or something if you understand this stuff and wanna talk!
- Just tangentially, this is a really dumb thing to call an organization, since it doesn’t parse as a name in English. “Vision to Learn” sounds like the name of an interminable prog rock track from 1972. I bet they’d increase their annual donation intake by 5%-ish if they changed it to something more anglonominal, e.g. V2L or Eyeglasses for Schoolkids. I mean, why would I want to give my hard-earned money to yet another masturbatory anthem by Robert Fripp or Steve-Freaking-Howe??!
- The forms, incidently, reveal that she’s paid $87,500 annually, or at least she was in 2014 and 2015. This is the one piece of evidence that doesn’t reflect poorly on her or her organization. It’s more than just moderate, it actually strikes me as low for Los Angeles. Serena Oberstein, if my opinion’s worth anything with your board, you can tell them that I think you’re worth at least six figures, and that’s without knowing whether you’re even doing a good job.
- Obviously 2017 revenues won’t have been calculated yet and for whatever reason I haven’t been able to lay my hands on V2L’s 2016 filing. Of course, if Serena Oberstein weren’t lying every time she mentions the word “transparency,” she’d have released the damn forms herself. They don’t seem to be available on the website.
- In the good sense of the word, natch!
- And a very different thing from the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance, about which we spill so very many electrons.
- If you’ve studied logic you might well be ranting and raving at this point about the fact that I’m committing whatever fallacy it is to assume that existence implies necessity. It might be some flavor of modal scope fallacy. But the City Council, probably because it’s guided by the City Attorney in such matters, is never ever going to ask commissioner candidates to do stuff that they’re not required to do as part of the confirmation process. And neither should they. The whole thing is intrusive enough. Thus at least in this restricted case existence really does imply necessity.
- Skip to page 6 of the PDF to see her gift disclosures. Some people gave her a toaster oven. Even weirder, it seems to have been a wedding present. Don’t wanna know what that’s all about!