Thursday, September 09, 2010

How Local Sausage Is Made

In a sense, this news is strictly local. A former Los Angeles City Council member lobbied his old friends in city government on behalf of businesses for years without going through the formality of registering as a lobbyist, as required by city laws. At the same time, however, it's a pretty good example of how business interests and politics are closely intertwined at all levels of government.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has decided not to file felony criminal charges against former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, even though investigators found that he worked as a lobbyist for years without identifying himself as one.

Cooley's Public Integrity Division concluded "without doubt" that Alatorre was an unregistered lobbyist at City Hall from 2003 to 2007 — an activity that qualifies as a misdemeanor violation of the city's ethics law. But the office also determined that his various efforts to avoid registering with the Ethics Commission did not rise to the level of a felony conspiracy.

The whole point of the city's ethics law was to identify lobbyists so that the public would know when outside interests were being pushed with elected officials. According to the article, Mr. Alatorre, who was on the City Council for years before resigning ten years ago, continued to drop by City Hall on a regular basis and kept in contact with his buddies still serving in some capacity in city government. Mayor Villaraigosa considers him a mentor and speaks with him regularly. At the same time, Mr. Alatorre was also accepting money from companies with business before the city as "a consultant."

Now, it's not illegal for a former elected official to become a lobbyist. The law simply requires that the former official register as a lobbyist. Mr. Alatorre didn't. He, along with another long time figure in California politics, found some loopholes.

After the ballot referendum known as Measure R went into effect, lobbyists were required to register if they worked 30 hours over a three-month period. That threshold made it difficult to determine whether Alatorre needed to register as a lobbyist between Jan 15, 2007, and Oct. 1, 2007, prosecutors wrote.

"How do you accurately demonstrate how long a phone call took, and what portion of that phone call constitutes lobbying? Is it some of it? Is it all of it? That's a really difficult thing to address," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Lentz Snyder.

Mr. Alatorre used that 30 hour threshold to his advantage. As far as the public was concerned, all he was doing was being sociable with old friends the way retirees often are. Except apparently Alatorre was interspersing chats about mutual friends and about the health of family members with messages about some new friends and the health of their businesses. With that kind of access, I suspect Mr. Alatorre served the businesses he "consulted" for quite well.

After an earlier Los Angeles Times article linked Alatorre to a major real estate developer and his activities became a little less murky, the former councilman finally registered, listing one client.

The District Attorney rightfully declined to prosecute Mr. Alatorre. Proving a conspiracy would have been too difficult. Their investigation, however, has been turned over to the Ethics Commission for further review. If they proceed with misdemeanor charges and prove them up, Mr. Alatorre could face some jail time.

That would be a nice start.



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