How Some City Leaders Keep Piles of Cash Flowing to Their Favored Causes

Since 2000, local pols have propelled a staggering $117 million in so-called ’behested payments.’ Here’s a breakdown of where that cash is coming from and where it’s going

When it comes to money and Los Angeles City Hall, most of the attention is paid to campaign donations. That makes sense: Knowing who gives the maximum individual amount of $800 to a council candidate or $1,500 to someone running for mayor provides a window into what relationships exist and who might be inclined to work with whom.

There is another, oft-overlooked monetary source in City Hall: behested payments. These are rivers of cash that flow at the request, or “behest,” of an elected official. Usually the officeholder calls a friend, business associate, or lobbyist and asks that a check be written for a charitable endeavor the politician supports. Sometimes the money goes to governmental or legislative aims.

It’s a murky world, a slightly stinky strata where corporate philanthropy meets arm-twisting. While no one is legally required to give when a politician asks, few who get called for a donation would dare say no, particularly if they envision coming to the same officeholder for help on a project, favorable legislation, or anything else.

Last month, the City Ethics Commission quietly launched the Behested Payments Dashboard, which tracks every reported donation of $5,000 or more since 2000. Here are some of the most intriguing elements related to checks written at the behest of Los Angeles politicians.

Nine-Figure City: In the last 21 years, a whopping $117,161,433 in behested payments of $5,000 or more have been made in Los Angeles, according to the database. A total of 31 officeholders have made requests, more than 1,200 corporations, foundations, and individuals have given, and funds have flowed to more than 240 recipients. The very first one tracked by the Ethics Commission was a $5,000 donation from the Southern California Gas Company to the Dia de Los Reyes Fund; it came at the behest of former District 14 Councilman Nick Pacheco. That is Pacheco’s only listed behest.

A Mayor Shall Lead Them: Who is the biggest behester? Not surprisingly, it’s Eric Garcetti. Since becoming mayor in 2013, he has facilitated more than 460 behested payments yielding nearly $74 million. This works out to 63 percent of the entirety of the behested funds received in the last two decades.

Some eyeballs will pop at the figure, but it’s worth pointing out that $55.4 million flowed to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, a registered nonprofit, with its own executive team, founded by Garcetti in 2014 (it followed a similar mayoral charitable effort in New York City). Donations kicked into high gear when COVID-19 rampaged across Los Angeles, and the Mayor’s Fund raised and then spent tens of millions of dollars helping thousands of Angelenos, doing everything from giving people prepaid Visa cards to buy groceries to covering hotel rooms for women suffering domestic violence.

The Biggest Payor: The single largest behested payment in the last two decades was a $5 million donation from the Consulate General of the State of Qatar that went to the Mayor’s Fund. The affiliates of the oil-rich country gave the money on April 14, 2020, almost a month into the pandemic. Garcetti mentioned the donation during one of his evening coronavirus briefings.

Another huge donation was $3 million from the Los Angeles Clippers Foundation. This also came at the request of Garcetti, but it was made in 2018 and went to the Los Angeles Parks Foundation. It paid for the renovation of basketball courts at scores of city parks and recreation centers. Updated courts now bear the Clippers’ logo.

Another Mayor: The second most prolific behester was Garcetti’s predecessor. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rode herd on more than $25 million in behested payments. The largest recipient was an organization that ran the Summer Nights Light program, which organizes evening sports and activities at city rec centers in dozens of high-needs communities. Nearly $5.5 million in behested funds went to the effort. Another $3.7 million went to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an education effort pushed by AnVil. Villaraigosa also solicited a $1 million donation from Mercury Insurance that went to the Los Angeles Police Department.

curren price
Curren Price at a ribbon cutting in May 2021

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Dollars and Price: The councilmember with the highest tally in behested funds is District 9 representative Curren Price. Once again, more than naked numbers are at play—of the $1.15 million in behested funds sparked by Price, $403,000 came in the form of more than 2 million surgical masks (valued at 20 cents each) provided by an entity known as BinacoMed LLC and given to the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. Price has also helped direct deep six-figure sums to the environmental nonprofit Los Angeles Conservation Corps and the South L.A.-focused Coalition for Responsible Community Development—the latter organization even got $20,000, thanks to Price’s behest, from the development firm run by noted Donald Trump backer and mega-developer Geoff Palmer. They money helped pay for the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival.

Even a Senator: Everyone knows Alex Padilla as California’s junior U.S. Senator. Some may have forgotten that he launched his political career as a member of the L.A. City Council. In addition to being president of the panel, he proved himself an able financial conduit, with $422,500 in behested payments made over a two-year span starting in 2003. All of the money went to three recipients, with the lion’s share being the $262,500 directed toward the Los Angeles Children’s Museum.

The Current Prez, Too: Speaking of council presidents, the person who now has that job, Nury Martinez, has also figured out how to make money move from those who have it to those who need it. Martinez is listed as being behind $475,000 in behested payments, all made from August 2019 through October 2020. She is on the Ethics Commission database for sparking $150,000 that went from Airbnb to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. She also helped propel $265,000 in donations to, once again, the L.A. Conservation Corps, with payments including $30,000 from Edison International and $20,000 from City National Bank.

Hidden Figures: The $117 million in behested payments in the last two decades is a staggering sum. It is also not a complete tally. That is because state law only requires revealing behests when an entity doles out $5,000 in a calendar year, and at least two efforts to significantly lower that amount in the city of Los Angeles have failed. In 2014, the Ethics Commission sought to decrease the reporting level to $1,000. But as the Commission later noted, “The City Council declined to implement the recommendation at that time.”

In 2019, the Ethics Commission again laid out reasons to reduce the reporting limit for behested payments to $1,000, noting that the same threshold exists in San Francisco. The council members, who would be impacted by any change, have kept the level at $5,000.

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