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Why Carl Lambert’s Contributions To The Re-Election Campaigns Of Mike Bonin And Eric Garcetti Were Probably Illegal and Should Be Refunded Immediately

Mike Bonin on August 23, 2016, earning his salary, which should be sufficient.
Mike Bonin on August 23, 2016, earning his salary, which should be sufficient.
As I reported the other day, Venice Beach BID proponent and shady illegal hotelier Carl Lambert donated $1400 to Eric Garcetti and $700 to Mike Bonin in 2015. Here is an argument that they ought to give that money back to Lambert immediately.

Not just because it’s the right thing to do. We’re all grownups here, and that’s not so much why things get done. But because it’s probably illegal for them to have accepted the money, or at least for Lambert to have contributed it. To explain why this is the case I have to talk about the campaign finance laws of the City of Los Angeles, which can make anybody’s poor head spin. So forgive me, but perhaps you’ll find it worth the trouble. The whole law is at LAMC Article 9.7, but it’s not necessary to read the whole thing.1 The section we are interested in today is LAMC 49.7.35, which covers Bidder Contribution and Fundraising Restrictions. This muni code section2 implements Section 470 of the City Charter, which covers Limitations on Campaign Contributions in City Elections.3 At Charter Section 470(a) we find this noble statement of the purpose of the whole thing:

The purpose of this section is to encourage a broader participation in the political process and to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption in city decision making, and protect the integrity of the City’s procurement and contract processes by placing limits on the amount any person may contribute or otherwise cause to be available to candidates for election to the offices of Mayor, City Attorney, Controller and City Council and promote accountability to the public by requiring disclosure of campaign activities and imposing other campaign restrictions.

Now, it is a fundamental principle in the American legal system that actions can only be illegal if there is an explicit statutory statement that they are illegal. Otherwise they’re legal. So while this statement of purpose has some force, mostly as a guide to interpreting the salient laws, it doesn’t in itself make anything illegal. Obviously Carl Lambert’s contributions to Garcetti and Bonin create the appearance of corruption in city decision making, but if that were sufficient to trigger a criminal prosecution then pretty much every donor to every incumbent candidate would have to be locked up.4 Thus we have to look to the parts of the law that implement this statement of purpose.

The Charter Section that we are interested in here is 470(c)(12)(B), which states in pertinent part5 that:

The following persons shall not make a campaign contribution to the Mayor, the City Attorney, the Controller, a City Council member, a candidate for any of those elected City offices, or a City committee controlled by a person who holds or seeks any of those elected City offices … A person who bids on or submits a proposal or other response to a contract solicitation that has an anticipated value of at least $100,000 and requires approval by the elected City office that is held or sought by the person to whom the contribution would be given…

Let’s run through the elements of the law here to see why it’s highly plausible that it forbids Carl Lambert from making contributions to either Eric Garcetti or Mike Bonin:
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