As you may already know quite well, in the City of Los Angeles, people are required by the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance to register with the Ethics Commission if they’re compensated for 30 hours of lobbying activity over three consecutive months.1 This year I’ve been working on reporting BID consultants to the Ethics Commission for failure to comply. So far I’ve filed two complaints, both against Tara Devine, one for her work on the Venice Beach BID and another for her work on the South Park BID.
But consultants aren’t the only BID people who spend their time trying to influence municipal legislation.2 BID staff actually spend a huge amount of time on this as well, and they never ever register as lobbyists. Also, they have never, in the entire history of Los Angeles, ever been called to account for failing to register. In fact, they’ve fought vigorously against the very idea that their work is even subject to the MLO.3
Consequently I’ve been working on expanding my unregistered lobbyist reporting project to BID staff as well. I kicked off the modern era of this project4 today by filing a complaint against Rena Leddy, executive directrix of the Fashion District BID, for failing to register and also for violating conflict of interest laws. You can read the whole complaint if you wish, and there’s a detailed discussion after the break.5
The Municipal Lobbying Ordinance, at LAMC §48.02, defines a lobbyist to be:
… any individual who is compensated to spend 30 or more hours in any consecutive three-month period engaged in lobbying activities which include at least one direct communication with a City official or employee, conducted either personally or through agents, for the purpose of attempting to influence municipal legislation on behalf of any person.
The registration requirement in the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance is described in LAMC §48.07, which states in part:
An individual who qualifies as a lobbyist shall register with the City Ethics Commission within 10 days after the end of the calendar month in which the individual qualifies as a lobbyist.
To prove that Rena Leddy violated this requirement, therefore, it’s necessary to prove that she was paid for 30 hours of lobbying over three consecutive months, contacted a City official, and failed to register. The three months I analyzed are March, April, and May 2017, which I chose for two main reasons.
Most importantly because I had enough documentation for those three months, but also because Rena Leddy spent much of March 2017 lobbying the City against the Skid Row Neighborhood Council. This was one of the most reprehensible episodes in the recent history of Downtown Los Angeles, her role in it was scandalous and unforgivable, and if someone’s going to be reported for breaking the law, they might as well be reported for their worst violations.
The last element of the requirement is the easiest to prove. As of this writing she does not appear on the Ethics Commission’s registry. That she contacted multiple City officials in order to influence them is also easy to show. Just for instance see this letter to José Huizar about some bike lanes on San Pedro Street. I’ve obtained piles of stuff like that via CPRA, and you can find a lot of it in the whole complaint.
The first element is, as always, the hardest to prove. It turns out to be incredibly time-consuming and difficult to analyze someone’s time closely enough to be able to argue that they spent 30 hours over three months on lobbying.6 Fortunately, though, I was able to obtain Rena Leddy’s appointment calendar for the months in question, which simplified the task somewhat. This evidence and a ton of emails and various other documents allowed me to construct a fairly detailed timeline of her lobbying activities, which is on page 13 of the the whole complaint.
Also, at this stage I was greatly aided by this report from the BID’s March 2017 retreat, in which Rena Leddy7 stated clearly that “[t]he Board and staff understand the importance of advocacy in all of the work of the organization. They spend 40-60% of their time on building relationships and advocating on behalf of the Fashion District…” Forty percent of 40 hours per week is 16 hours, so if even the low end of this estimate is correct, Rena Leddy would have hit her registration threshold in two weeks, let alone three months.
That much of this report is fairly routine, and the reasoning is not especially novel. Other jurisdictions actually accept the fact that BID staff ought to register as lobbyists in various ways. For instance, in San Francisco they actually just register with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. The City of Santa Monica has a different approach. Their lobbying ordinance, at SMMC §4.85.010, excludes contractors from the definition of lobbyists.
The Property and Business Improvement District Law at §36612 requires BIDs to sign contracts with Cities. Hence in Santa Monica registration is explicitly not required, which amounts to a recognition that BID staff are lobbyists. Otherwise why write the law so as to exclude them? However, clearly, in Los Angeles registration is required under criteria which not only Rena Leddy but many, many other similarly situated people satisfy. Therefore, I hope to file a bunch more of these complaints against BID staff.
However, there’s an interesting twist to Rena Leddy’s situation, which is due to the fact that she’s also a member of the board of directors of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, known in the vernacular as DLANC. According to an analysis by the City Attorney, NC board members are bound by fairly strict conflict of interest rules. Among these is the so-called common law conflict of interest prohibition, which the City Attorney explains like this:
… [a] public officer is impliedly bound to exercise the powers conferred on him with diligence and primarily for the benefit of the public. … This doctrine applies in situations involving both financial and nonfinancial interests. This means that simply having a personal relation to the matter could be construed as tainting your decision-making because you are perceived to be biased or making the decision based on your personal interest, rather than for the good of the public.
One of the cases that this principle is based on is Nasha LLC v. City of Los Angeles,8 in which the court found that:
The essential issue presented is whether the Planning Commission’s decision should be set aside due to an unacceptable probability of actual bias on the part of one of the decisionmakers. While this matter was pending before the Planning Commission, one of its members authored an article attacking the project under consideration. Accordingly, Nasha’s claim of bias is well founded.
So generally, if a public official, and make no mistake about it, NC board members are public officials, makes it clear before voting on an official matter that they favor one side of the issue, they have a conflict of interest. The commissioner in the case did this by writing an article against a project that he later voted on.
Now, City Market South is a huge development project going on in the Fashion District. In fact, City Market South president Mark Levy sits on the Fashion District BID board of directors. And not only that, but Rena Leddy spends a lot of time lobbying in favor of various matters that City Market South has pending with the City of Los Angeles. For instance, in May 2017 she attended two public meetings to support the project. She also does press relations in support of City Market South, e.g. this article from Apparel News.9
Thus it is mildly disconcerting to discover that, according to the DLANC minutes for June 2017 a City Market South subproject came up before the board for a letter of support and Rena Leddy voted in favor of it, even though her prior public advocacy in favor of this issue made it completely implausible that she was acting impartially in June 2017.
Aha! I can hear your objection! You might well argue that the planning commission in the case I quoted above had the actual power to approve or deny building permits. DLANC, on the other hand, can’t approve or deny anything. They only recommend to the City and the City exercises its municipal power. But, in the analysis of NC conflicts of interest that I quoted above, written by the City Attorney of Los Angeles, it’s stated clearly that this admittedly plausible theory is not going to fly:
Once a neighborhood council board member has been delegated the authority to make “governmental decisions,” as enumerated above,10 on behalf of its neighborhood council, even the member’s votes on “non-governmental” or purely advisory recommendations will be subject to the conflict-of-interest provisions.
So I also complained to the Ethics Commission about that.11 Anyway, that’s the story of how I turned Rena Leddy in to the Ethics Commission today. There are a bunch of picky details found in the whole complaint which I had to leave out of this post, by the way, so read that if you’re interested. As we all know, the Ethics Commission takes its sweet time to investigate, which of course is a good thing. It’s important to get these things right. If and when anything comes of this, you’ll certainly read about it here!
Image of Rena Leddy is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and is transformatively derived from this little item here.
- That’s total rather than per month. Also, the 30 hours must include a contact with a City official in an attempt to influence municipal legislation. Read the law to understand fully what it says.
- Defined in LAMC §48.02 as: “…any legislative or administrative matter proposed or pending before any agency (as defined in this article), including but not limited to those involving the granting, denial, revocation, restriction or modification of a license, permit or entitlement for use (including all land use permits) if the Mayor, the City Council, any of its committees, any agency board, commission, committee, or general manager, or any agency officer or employee charged by law with holding a hearing and making a decision, is charged by law with making a final decision on the matter.” In particular, it’s not limited to actual ordinances.
- For instance, you may recall that the last time the MLO came before the City Council for revision, Kerry Morrison of the HPOA and a bunch of her BID-bound cronies flirted with Eric Garcetti until he killed the ordinance solely because they didn’t like being labeled as lobbyists.
- I reported Kerry Morrison for this almost two years ago for her work on the still-pending street vending initiative. Nothing has come of this yet, but it certainly still may. The Ethics Commission is notoriously slow and thorough in its investigations, and two years is by no means a sign that they’ve dropped the matter. I’ve since learned a lot about how the law works and how to write effective reports, and looking back I can see some deficiencies in that work, which is why I’m not publishing it. I stand by the conclusions, though, and all the evidence has already been published on the blog here, so you can make your own judgment. If anything comes of it you’ll read about it here. If nothing does, I’ll write an updated complaint.
- Unfortunately I’m not able to generate a decent transcription of the PDF at this time.
- By the way, if you’re interested, this difficulty is one of the main reasons why it’s essential that the definition of the MLO be changed to include a registration requirement based on compensation rather than on time spent. The Ethics Commission staff is in the process of proposing revisions to the law, and there’s still time to write in with your opinions. Send comments to email@example.com. You can read my detailed letter here if you’d like some ideas on what (or what not) to talk about. It’s crucial to get your opinion heard, not least because at least some of the Commissioners seem weirdly sympathetic to the lobbyists’ point of view.
- Or whoever wrote the report. I’m pretty sure it was Rena Leddy but I don’t actually know for sure.
- Interestingly but tangentially, this case was fought by Luna & Glushon, who have represented slavering psychopath Mark Ryavec in some of his weirder antics.
- Press relations are lobbying activities according to the MLO if one is paid to do them, and Rena Leddy is paid to do them. That’s not important for the conflict of interest analysis, though, which only requires her to have made it clear prior to a vote that her mind was made up.
- According to the document, “governmental decisions” are such things as “hiring of staff, entering into contracts for goods or services or control over funds in the City budget.” Every NC board member has been delegated this authority, as they’re allowed to spend City money on their various projects.
- A similar argument will probably work against the other BID members of DLANC, such as Estela Lopez and Josh Kreger. I’m currently gathering evidence, but the BIDs are getting much more obstructionist and it takes so very long.