Los Angeles leaders are slated to vote Wednesday on a new law that will crack down on campaign contributions from real estate developers seeking city approval for their projects.
The idea, first proposed by council members nearly three years ago, had languished before an FBI raid at City Hall last year cast a fresh spotlight on long-standing concerns about developer donations and political power.
Council members have heralded the proposed restrictions as a way to combat the perception that developer money drives their decisions about what gets built in Los Angeles.
“It’s revolutionary,” said Councilman David Ryu, who swore off developer donations when he ran for office and championed the move, calling it “a huge advancement … for restoring trust and faith for Angelenos in their City Hall.”
Advertisement Under the proposed ordinance, real estate developers would be barred from giving political contributions to Los Angeles city officials and candidates for council, mayor or city attorney while the city weighs whether to grant key approvals for their building projects, including zone changes and allowing added height. Developers would face such restrictions for a year after a final decision on each application.
But critics complain that the proposed ban has been watered down. The proposed law does not prohibit developers from hosting fundraisers or raising money from other donors. It would bar some developers from giving, but does not prohibit politicians from knowingly receiving those banned donations.
And under the proposal backed by a council committee, the law would not go into effect for years — a delay that officials said was needed to first set up a database tracking who is prohibited from donating. Groups that had pushed for reform argued it would allow only incumbents to keep reaping developer money as they seek reelection.
The law is “a skeleton of what was originally proposed,” said Wayne Williams, a board member with the California Clean Money Campaign, calling it “quite disappointing.”
Advertisement The Wednesday vote marks the culmination of years of debate. Ryu swore off developer donations when he ran for office, but initially struggled to get traction for similar proposals at City Hall.
Council members backed the idea nearly three years ago as they tried to fend off a ballot measure that would have curbed development, embracing the proposal as a way to ease suspicion of how planning decisions are made in Los Angeles.
The plan languished , however , after that ballot measure went down to defeat. Council members revived the proposal earlier this year, months after FBI agents raided the home and offices of Councilman Jose Huizar. The councilman, who has not been publicly charged with a crime, had been heading a powerful committee that oversees development decisions.
Ryu said the proposed law isn’t perfect. “Do I think this is going to solve all corruption? Of course not,” he said, adding that he plans to pursue more reforms. “But this is something that has been needed in the city of Los Angeles for decades.”
L.A. already restricts campaign contributions from registered lobbyists and bidders for city contracts. When the city turned its focus to developer donations, the Ethics Commission recommended a version of the proposed ban that would have also barred fundraising by targeted developers and imposed penalties on politicians as well as donors.
It would also have covered a larger pool of donors involved in a development project — including major subcontractors, consultants and anyone on the “project team” — and targeted a wider range of decisions by the planning department.
“Just look at some of our past corruption scandals and the way developers utilize everybody in their orbit — contractors, subcontractors, down to groundskeepers and housekeepers like we saw in the Sea Breeze scandal,” said Rob Quan, an organizer with the group Unrig L.A., referring to a Times investigation into donations linked to a developer .
The current version of the ordinance, up for council approval on Wednesday, applies more narrowly to developers seeking a “significant planning entitlement,” which includes more than a dozen kinds of city approvals.
Advertisement It would apply to donors listed as the property owner or applicant, as well as their “principals” — top executives, board chairs, people who own a significant stake in a company, and their representatives before the planning department. Ryu said the narrower set of restrictions was meant to ensure the law could stand up in court.
Banned donors will still be able to give as much as they want to independent committees that are not affiliated with the candidates, which the city cannot legally restrict. Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and former president of the Ethics Commission, warned that the new ban could simply spur developers to give to such committees.
“When we limit the ability of people to give directly, it doesn’t mean they stop giving,” Levinson said. She also cautioned that singling out developers for restrictions could be “legally problematic.”
The council has yet to tackle two other proposed reforms that were backed by the Ethics Commission : imposing new restrictions on “behested payments” — donations solicited by politicians for their favored charities — and barring political donations from corporations and other “non-individuals.”
In L.A., some political donors have given money through limited liability corporations, which can make it difficult to tell who is actually behind the donation. Critics argued developers could keep giving through such companies.
But when the idea was last discussed at City Hall, some council members voiced alarm about shutting out donations from unions and advocacy groups. City attorneys said it would require changing the city charter.
LINK ORIGINAL: Latimes