Friday, April 1, 2011

FPPC fine for good-faith attempts to comply with the law

By Professor Laurie Levenson

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's recent agreement with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to pay $42,000 to cover the costs of gifts he received, but had not reported, highlights the need for that agency to clarify its regulations. The taxpayers expect the mayor to be a strong presence in this city and even nationally. To do so, he will inevitably be attending events in which he has a "ceremonial role." Technically, if he is performing such a role, the reporting act requirements are not triggered. The big problem is that there is no clear definition as to when an official act is a "ceremonial role."

An infinite number of examples come to mind. How about when the mayor throws out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium or presents a plaque to sponsors of a Lakers game? How about free tickets to Disneyland to attend a conference of potential city investors? How about donning his tuxedo to attend the Academy Awards, which is a critical lifeline for Los Angeles' entertainment industry? Gifts or ceremonial duty?

Some people will want to make political hay over the mayor's recent agreement with the FPPC, but the truth is that his penalty was relatively modest, and even the commission acknowledged that he acted in good faith. In order to guide this mayor and future ones, we need to be more specific as to when the mayor must report "benefits" received by attending such events. No city wants a public official who acts out of self-interest and not the interest of the citizenry. But, nothing about the recent agreement indicates that Mayor Villaraigosa did so. It does indicate, however, that if we want our public officials to follow the laws, we need to make clear what those laws are.

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