LA responds to Garcetti's record-breaking behested payments

FILE: Sukey Roth, Mayor Eric Garcetti's mother, administers the oath of office for her son at City Hall in Los Angeles, California, on July 1, 2017. Garcetti is accompanied by his wife Amy Wakeland and their daughter, Maya.
FILE: Sukey Roth, Mayor Eric Garcetti's mother, administers the oath of office for her son at City Hall in Los Angeles, California, on July 1, 2017. Garcetti is accompanied by his wife Amy Wakeland and their daughter, Maya.
Daryl Barker/KPCC

Several KPCC listeners and readers expressed frustration and anger this week after learning of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's record-setting fundraising for favored causes from companies and other donors, some of which do business with the city.

As KPCC found in an investigation published Wednesday, the mayor set a new city record using a fundraising vehicle called "behested payments." The sum of the payments, nearly $32 million since Garcetti was elected mayor in 2013, is more than double that of Gov. Jerry Brown during the same time frame.

While the practice of behested payments has been regulated in the state for two decades, it remains little-known, and some residents contacted the station with concerns sparked by the story. 

"Wow... I thought I followed politics closely but this 'behested' business is a whole new ball game," said writer Joel Blackwell in an email. 

For Jonny Coleman of Highland Park, donations to support the effort to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles, a major campaign led by Garcetti, were especially concerning. Those gifts totaled $1.5 million in contributions.

Coleman is a lead organizer of a group that's against the city hosting the Olympics, arguing it will worsen Los Angeles' pressing homelessness and housing issues.

"It couldn’t be more quid pro quo, I think, if it tried, even though it technically maybe isn't," he said, of Garcetti's behested payments. "It does alarm me, and I think it poses a lot of really great questions that I would love to hear the mayor answer directly."

KPCC repeatedly tried to schedule an interview with Garcetti over a three-week period before the story was published. In the end, his staff scheduled an interview and then cancelled it. Instead, the mayor responded to KPCC's questions in writing. 

In his written response to questions, Garcetti said he’s proud of the fundraising he's done through behested payments.

"Our city is facing unprecedented challenges, and we can only overcome them if everyone pitches in," he said. Garcetti dismissed ethical concerns about conflicts of interest. 

Residents of Hollywood near the studio expansion of Paramount Pictures also chimed in after reading the KPCC report. Paramount was a major contributor among Garcetti's behested payment donors, making a $50,000 donation to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles in July 2015. The fund is a nonprofit that Garcetti helped set up to benefit civic causes.

Some residents there said they feel that neighborhood concerns haven't been heard during the process to expand the studio's footprint, and were not surprised that the studio has been active as a donor to charitable causes and political officeholder committees.

"Concerns for safety as well as congestion and pollution voiced during the city's review and approval process have not been comprehensively addressed," Marguerite Topping told KPCC. She said she lived across the street from the studio for years, but relocated to Indianapolis this May.

A spokesperson for Paramount declined to comment before the KPCC investigation aired. 

We also heard from a resident of Mar Vista who is concerned about construction on a nearby Verizon cell phone tower. "Who is our advocate at City Hall?" she wrote in an email blast copied to KPCC reporters. 

Verizon has made four contributions at the mayor's behest since 2014, including a $100,000 donation to the Mayor's Fund in October 2015. That came about a month after the City Council voted to approve a contract for voice and data services worth up to $15 million.

While donations to traditional campaigns are tightly controlled, elected officials aren't required to report any behested payment from a single source under $5,000 in a calendar year. And there's no ceiling on the behested payments.

A behested payment of $5,000 would be more than triple the maximum allowable campaign contribution in Los Angeles, which was capped at $1,400 in the 2017 mayoral election.

Behested payments have their defenders as well. They point to the positive missions that the contributions help carry out. The Mayor's Fund, which has received about three-quarters of Garcetti's behested fundraising, has supported water conservation, housing for homeless veterans and immigrants rights organizations. All are broadly popular efforts in the city.

Garcetti is in New Hampshire this week, stumping for Manchester, N.H. mayoral candidate Joyce Craig.