Legal Defense Funds: An Ethical Dilemma?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was recently hit with almost $42,000 in fines based on improper acceptance of free tickets to 34 events, including concerts, and cultural affairs and sporting events.

What is a mayor to do?

In Villaraigosa's case, create three separate legal defense funds for three separate investigations - one related to the L.A. Ethics Commission's inquiry, another related to a District Attorney examination, and a third related to the California Fair Political Practices Commission probe. The law allows office holders to create legal defense funds when they face charges or investigations stemming from their jobs as public officials.

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The mayor can raise $1,000 per contributor for each of the three funds, and has already raised over $123,500 to pay for fines and attorneys fees. In total, more than fifty people gave to the mayor's legal defense funds.

Who gave to these funds?

Well, unsurprisingly, many old friends and colleagues like former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, former Assemblyman Dario Frommer, former state Senator Jim Brulte, Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, and Senator Kevin De Leon.

What will happen to any extra funds?

The mayor has three choices. He cannot simply pocket any excess funds and call it a day. He can either contribute the money to the city's general fund, return the funds to the donors, or hold onto the funds in case he faces future legal problems.

What's the problem?

People likely give to legal defends funds for the same reasons that they give campaign funds. Contributions, whether to campaign committees or legal defense funds, allow contributors to tell politicians "we support you." Quite often the subtext is, "so please support me on X." Therefore, contributions to legal defense funds can serve as a loophole around contribution limits to campaign committees, because they provide another avenue for private donors to give money to officeholders.

Legal defense funds can serve a legitimate purpose. Good, qualified candidates should not be dissuaded from running for office because they feel they may -- by availing themselves of the public forum -- be susceptible to legal problems stemming from their official duties and have no means of paying for those problems.

However, that is not this case with Villaraigosa. He committed ethical violations and then he raised private funds to cover the costs of those violations. In essence the mayor's initial failure to disclose free tickets given to him -- very likely in attempt to curry favor with him -- has provided the mayor with yet another fundraising opportunity, and hence another crop of donors perhaps trying to curry their own favor with our city's chief executive.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Joits. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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