The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission fined lobbyist John Ek more than $11,000 on Tuesday for inviting dozens of city officials to a birthday party with free food, drinks and musical entertainment, saying he had violated city rules that restrict gifts from registered lobbyists.
But politicians and other city officials who attended the expensive event were able to repay Ek for party costs and avoid any penalty. Sergio Perez, the Ethics Commission’s enforcement director, said that under city and state rules, if someone quickly reimburses the gift giver, “it’s as if a gift was not received.”
Nearly two years ago, Ek paid more than $51,000 to celebrate his 50th birthday at Perch Los Angeles, hosting an invitation-only party for roughly 250 guests at the downtown bistro. An Ethics Commission investigation found that he had invited 37 city officials to the event and had, therefore, offered them an improper gift.
Registered lobbyists are barred from offering or giving gifts to elected officials under city rules, and elected officials are barred from accepting them. Lobbyists are also prohibited from giving gifts to other city officials if they are seeking to influence decisions in their agencies.
City officials are also banned from accepting such gifts. Ek invited members of the Los Angeles City Council, the controller and the mayor, as well as other city employees, but city investigators did not identify which politicians or their staffers ultimately went to the party. None of the partygoers faced fines: Ethics Commission officials said all of the city officials who attended had later reimbursed Ek for their share of the party costs — $205.06 each — “negating acceptance of the gift.”
Mayoral candidate Yuval Kremer, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said it was “disturbing” that the Ethics Commission was not naming the city officials who attended. “They were not whistleblowers or witnesses — they’re politicians who broke the rules,” Kremer said in an interview. “Not only are they not willing to fine them, they’re not willing to name them.”
Kremer also publicly questioned the independence of the commission, arguing that it had a “double standard” and avoided punishing sitting politicians. Members of the Ethics Commission are appointed by city officials, including the mayor and the City Council president, and the agency relies on the City Council and the mayor to approve its budget.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ethics Commission member Andrea Sheridan Ordin asked staffers why the city had found no violation on the part of the city officials who went to the party. Perez, the enforcement director, replied that city investigators didn’t have a choice. Because the city officials had quickly repaid Ek, “there is no receipt of a gift in violation of city law,” Perez said.
The Times reviewed photos of the party and confirmed that Councilman Mitch Englander and Councilwoman Nury Martinez attended. Although an Ethics Commission report said that partygoers reimbursed Ek after being contacted by city investigators, Martinez spokesman Adam Bass said that the councilwoman knew that going to the party amounted to a gift and had paid Ek back without being contacted by the Ethics Commission.
Martinez aide Alexis Marin, Jessica Duboff, who was an aide to Councilman Mike Bonin at the time, and Justin Wesson, an aide and son of Council President Herb Wesson, also went to the party. Vanessa Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the council president, said Justin Wesson had seen the event as “nothing more, nothing less than a birthday party for a colleague.”
Ek spokesman Robert Alaniz said the lobbyist found out only after the birthday party that inviting city officials was considered offering them a gift. “Mr. Ek, who has no prior enforcement history with the Ethics Commission, has never seen this interpretation in his 25-plus years as a city lobbyist,” Alaniz said in a statement.
Members of the Ethics Commission said Tuesday that a seasoned lobbyist like Ek should have been aware of the rules. “He was in the business of being a lobbyist… So I don’t know how that mistake could have been made,” Ordin said at the Tuesday meeting.
Ek could have been fined more than $22,000, but Ethics Commission staffers decided to cut the proposed penalty in half because he had cooperated with the investigation.
The Ethics Commission also handed out fines Tuesday to technology company Cisco, which must pay $12,500 for failing to accurately report more than $90,000 in lobbying expenses; Crest Real Estate, its president and project manager, who were penalized $15,000 each — a total of $45,000 — for failing to register and report lobbying; and former mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez, who must pay more than $36,000 after failing to properly maintain spending records or turn over copies of ads from his campaign four years ago.