Tuesday, June 19, 2001
Ridley-Thomas, Campaign Official Fined for Officeholder Account Violations
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and his campaign treasurer have agreed to pay fines totaling $10,000 for violations of city law governing elected officials’ officeholder accounts.
Ridley-Thomas acknowledged payments improperly made from his account during a pre-election “blackout period,” payments that went unreported and a payment to an organization that was not tax-exempt.
Under a proposed stipulation dated June 14 between Ridley-Thomas, support committee treasurer Ida Yarbrough and Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham, the councilman is to pay $5,000 and Yarbrough another $5,000 for violations beginning in 1997 up to and past the councilman’s April 13, 1999 re-election primary.
The stipulation becomes effective only on approval by the Ethics Commission, which is slated to consider it today.
Elected officials may set up officeholder accounts and fund them with donations from supporters. Payments into and out of the accounts are governed in much the same way as contributions to and from campaign funds, with limits on donations, restrictions on expenditures and full disclosure required.
Money may be used only for carrying out official duties of office, such as assisting or communicating with constituents, and may not be used for re-election campaigns.
In one of a series of audits on campaign and office holder accounts, the commission staff discovered that a $3,500 donation to an art gallery in April 1999 breached city law since the gallery was not tax exempt.
Ridley-Thomas said the Leimert Park Fine Arts Gallery was a community-based organization that offered arts and crafts programs for children on weekends.
The Eighth District councilman said it is customary in other jurisdictions to treat such donations as proper when tax-exempt status has been sought and approval is pending. He said he presented evidence to the commission staff that the gallery had filed its application.
Ridley-Thomas added that the owner of the gallery died soon after the donation and that the gallery was closed and the application abandoned.
“All these factors should have applied with respect to what should have been considered mitigating,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Reasonableness ought to be the rule by which we are governed. But if one had to be fined for anything, I am willing to be fined for trying to do good for the community I’m trying to represent.”
Also asserted in the stipulation is that Ridley-Thomas continued making payments from the officeholder account during the time he was eligible to file for re-election and launch campaign fundraising.
Ridley-Thomas said he had not yet actually filed at the time, but city law imposes a blackout on certain officeholder account activities during the eligibility period. The purpose of the restriction is to assure that incumbents do not use their officeholder accounts to get a head start on candidates who have not yet become eligible to raise campaign funds.
There also were 35 expenditures for meals, gifts and travel, dating back to November 1997, that were not reported until auditors brought them to Ridley-Thomas’ attention.
Ridley-Thomas, his treasurer and his supporters’ committee previously have been fined for previous campaign finance violations. He called the allegations in the stipulation “technicalities.”
“Frankly, part of the reason they [the Ethics Commission] are there is to justify their existence, and these sometimes are the consequences,” he said.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company