A couple weeks ago I published an open letter to various City politicians asking them to return shady contributions to their campaigns by shady Venice Beach Business Improvement District proponents Carl Lambert and Mark Sokol. There’s been no discernable response so far, but it’s important to remember that at least as far as I can tell the politicians didn’t actually break the law by accepting the contributions. In fact it was Sokol and Lambert who broke it by making the contributions.
The relevant laws are Section 470(c)(12)(A)(i) of the City Charter,1 which says:
The following persons shall not make a campaign contribution to any elected City official, candidate for elected City office, or City committee controlled by an elected City official or candidate: 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 City Council.
Also, LAMC 49.7.38(B), which authorizes civil enforcement of the Charter provisions2 states:
1. A person who intentionally or negligently violates a provision of this Article is liable in a civil action brought by the City Attorney, the Ethics Commission, or a person residing within the City. The amount of liability may not exceed the greater of $5,000 per violation or three times the amount the person failed to properly report or unlawfully contributed, expended, gave, or received.
So that’s exciting! There’s no way the City Attorney is going to get involved in this kind of thing, but the Ethics Commission is required by law to investigate every report that’s made to them. So we made a report! You can read it here.3
Another interesting aspect of this situation is that the Municipal Code creates a private cause of action4 for violations of this particular law. And it also makes the whole thing expensive for the violators:
4. In determining the amount of liability, the court may take into account the seriousness of the violation and the degree of culpability of the defendant. If a judgment is entered against the defendant or defendants in an action, a private plaintiff shall receive 50 percent of the amount recovered. The remaining 50 percent shall be deposited into the City’s General Fund. In an action brought by the City Attorney or the Ethics Commission, the entire amount shall be paid to the City’s General Fund.
But one can’t just run out and file. It’s required to give the City a chance to clean up its own mess first:
3. Before filing a civil action pursuant to this Subsection, a person other than the City Attorney shall first file with the Ethics Commission a written request for the Ethics Commission to commence an action. The request shall contain a statement of the grounds for believing a cause of action exists. The Ethics Commission shall respond within 40 days after receiving the request and indicate whether it intends to file a civil action. If the Commission indicates in the affirmative and files an action within 40 days after the response, no other action may be brought unless the action brought by the Ethics Commission is dismissed without prejudice.
So that’s where we’re at with that. Stay tuned!
- If you’re a policy wonk, you’ll have noticed that I’m leaving out discussion of Section 470(c)(12)(A)(iii), which also applies here. It’s too much technicality for too little insight, so I”m just skipping it, mmmmKay?
- The statute also authorizes criminal enforcement (in subsection A), but that requires intention, and I think the chance that anyone’s ever going to be criminally prosecuted under this law is quite low. In the case at hand it’s essentially zero unless some really shocking and unexpected information comes to light.
- None of us around here are lawyers, so we all apologize in advance to the lawyers in our audience for our amateurish mistakes.
- Which means that anyone can sue for enforcement of the law even if they weren’t personally and directly harmed by the violation.