$42 Million And Counting: Mayor's Nonprofit Plays Major Role In Pandemic Response | KCET
$42 Million And Counting: Mayor's Nonprofit Plays Major Role In Pandemic Response
The following article was originally published May 11, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.
Story by Aaron Mendelson
At Mayor Eric Garcetti's nightly briefings, he often discusses case numbers, social distancing and the budget.
Garcetti also frequently namechecks the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles, which has assumed a major role in the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The charity has raised $42 million for response efforts in recent weeks, an advisor said, blowing away its fundraising total of $4.3 million from the last fiscal year. That money has gone to efforts to support struggling residents, seniors, health care workers and domestic violence victims.
The fund is an independent nonprofit. While it has no formal affiliation with Garcetti, his elected office is in its name, he helped establish it in 2014, and the organization has offices in city hall (though staff are working from home during the pandemic). Further blurring the line, several Garcetti allies are closely involved.
Deadlines for elected officials to report "behested payments" — donations to charity made at their urging, which would likely include numerous donations to the Mayor's Fund — are currently suspended, and Garcetti hasn't filed any such reports with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission in recent weeks.
In order to build out a picture of who has been giving, and how much, LAist reviewed Garcetti's briefings. The mayor often thanks donors to the fund by name. Donors mentioned in March, April and May briefings account for more than $30 million in contributions, according to the data compiled by KPCC.
The fund has fueled concerns that large donations could curry favor with the mayor. "The larger the amount, the more that they may have at stake," said Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
Stern said that's true even when the causes are worthwhile and the need is urgent.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented emergency and Mayor Garcetti is committed to raising private funds to help our residents facing extreme hardships," Garcetti spokesperson Alex Comisar said. "He is grateful for the support of all who have given."
SUPPORTING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESPONSE, SENIORS, CASH ASSISTANCE
The Mayor's Fund quickly pivoted to COVID-19 response as the crisis ramped up. "Whole new things had to be built from the ground up," said Yusef Robb, an advisor to the fund. Previously a vehicle for fundraising, the fund has taken a more proactive role in shaping its programs.
The charity has supported several relief efforts, including the Angeleno Card, pre-filled debit cards for low-income L.A. residents. The response to the cards was massive, with hundreds of thousands of applications submitted.
Robb said 20,000 cards will be distributed, with amounts ranging from $700 to $1,500. A second round is in the works.
Because the cards are privately funded, they are not subject to the Public Charge rule, Robb said. That federal rule denies green cards to applicants who draw on public benefits such as food stamps. Applicants for the cards are not asked about their immigration status.
Other Mayor's Fund efforts have paid for hotel rooms for people fleeing domestic violence; for thousands of days of childcare for health care and frontline workers; and for meals for seniors.
"The Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles has a really strong set of ties with donors and they've obviously done a good job mobilizing those ties," said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy. "I'm not surprised it has raised a lot of money."
"Donors may have a perception that giving to the fund will be looked upon favorably by Eric Garcetti. And that's just not the most ideal structure," he said.
DONORS INCLUDE SUPERSTARS, EXECS, FARAWAY NATIONS
Since late March, Garcetti has announced dozens of donors to the Mayor's Fund.
The list includes big names, including NBA MVP Russell Westbrook, E.T. director Steven Spielberg and multi-platinum singer Pink, along with corporations and foundations.
Garcetti also sometimes spotlights less-famous Angelenos during his evening briefings, including Andrew in Brentwood, who gave $5.
Many big donors are longtime supporters of Garcetti. Among them:
- The United Brotherhood of Carpenters: The labor union previously gave half a million dollars to a nonprofit linked to Garcetti, Accelerator for America. It gave another half million to a committee Garcetti formed to support a ballot measure in 2016
- Steve Ballmer: Energetic former Microsoft executive and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer gave millions through the Clippers' foundation to renovate hundreds of basketball courts in Los Angeles
- Walter Wang: Owner of the plastic pipe company JM Eagle, Walter Wang has made several large contributions to the Mayor's Fund. "We want to influence the government leaders to make the right decisions so that we can be more competitive," he said of his giving in 2015
The fund has also received seven-figure windfalls from foreign governments. Among them were a $5 million donation from Qatar through its consulate in Los Angeles. "This generous gift will save lives," Garcetti said in announcing it on April 22.
The gift illustrates the difference between charitable contributions to the Mayor's Fund and political donations to a politician's campaign: When Garcetti ran for reelection in 2017, the maximum donation was $1,400. Foreign nationals can't contribute to campaigns.
A gift from Qatar might have drawn scrutiny during an election: hundreds of migrant workers have died in the country in recent years, prompting human rights concerns; the nation has anti-LGBTQ laws on the books; and Qatar paid bribes to win the 2022 World Cup, according to federal prosecutors in the U.S.
"The Mayor's Fund condemns human rights violations anywhere that they would occur," advisor Yusef Robb said. The fund also received a gift of $1 million from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles.
"I suppose it's being used for good purposes," Bob Stern told LAist. "But the question is, why are countries making big donations?"
Amid the fundraising success, the Mayor's Fund parted ways with its president, Jeremy Bernard, in April. Bernard was a former social director for President Barack Obama and, before that, a prominent California fundraiser for Obama.
Robb wouldn't comment other than to thank Bernard for his work and call the departure a personnel matter. Former President Deidre Lind has stepped in to run the organization in the interim.
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