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Home / ethics investigation

Ethics investigation of Los Angeles Councilman Lee moves forward

By Jose Herrera

Los Angeles’ Ethics Commission Wednesday authorized staff to contract with the state Office of Administrative Hearings to provide an administrative law judge to serve as a hearing officer for the investigation of Councilman John Lee.

The commission has contracted with the state office for hearing officers since 2004, according to a report from David Tristan, the commission’s executive director.

The commission voted 3-0 to direct staff to finalize an agreement with President Jeffery Daar recusing himself to avoid “any appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said.

Daar and Lee were among the 16 candidates in the 2019 special election to fill the vacant 12th District City Council seat following the resignation of Mitchell Englander to take a job with the Oak View Group, a global sports and entertainment advisory, development and investment company.

Enforcement Officer Kenneth Hardy explained Wednesday that the commission only decided on hearing officers for an evidentiary hearing, which he described as “somewhat like a trial.”

Hardy said that during this procedure evidence is brought forward, witnesses may be examined and cross-examined, and sometimes objections are made.

The individual administrative hearing officer will make a recommendation whether the alleged violations occurred, then provide a written report with factual findings, conclusions of law and a summary of the evidence.

Per the report, the OAH in-person filing fee is $125 per case and the hourly rate for administrative law judges is $369. OAH typically schedules the city’s hearings two to six months after a case is filed, but the timeline depends on the facts of the matter whether a case may be extended, officials said.

The hearing should take a day, according to the report.

Members of the Ethics Commission must then determine whether the alleged violations actually did occur and, if so, what penalty is appropriate.

The commissioners had three other options for an administrative hearing officer, in which one commissioner could have served as the hearing officer; commission members could have sat in as a hearing panel with another individual presiding as the hearing officer; or commission members could have sat in as a hearing panel without the presence of a presiding hearing officer.

Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lee is accused of violating governmental ethics laws for allegedly accepting and failing to report excessive gifts, including some received during a trip to Las Vegas in 2017 he took along with Englander, who pleaded guilty in 2020 to lying to federal investigators looking into his alleged receipt of excessive cash and gifts.

Lee was Englander’s chief of staff prior to being elected to the City Council.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission, “in 2016 and 2017, including during a 2017 trip to Las Vegas, Lee accepted multiple gifts from a businessperson and a developer, most of which exceeded the gift limit.”

“Lee failed to publicly disclose those gifts on the California statement of economic interests (Form 700) that he was required to file when he left city service, and he never amended the form to disclose the gifts when he ran for Council District 12 in 2019 and 2020.”

In a previous statement, Lee called the commission’s accusation against him “misguided and based on conjecture instead of actual evidence.”

“For the last 20 months, commission investigators have wasted critical taxpayer resources to investigate a dinner in 2016 that I do not recall attending, have drastically inflated the amount of food and beverages I consumed during a June 2017 trip in Las Vegas during my final 11 days as a City Council staff member, and lodged accusations that are completely false,” Lee said.

“The commission falsely states that the FBI started an investigation into whether I accepted gifts. Further, they falsely state I attempted to mislead the FBI. Both accusations are categorically false. They fully know I have never been a target or a subject of any federal investigation.

“Throughout this process, I have gone above and beyond to cooperate with the commission’s investigation in the name of transparency. I have provided bank statements that corroborate what I recalled about this trip, sat for interviews, and have been transparent every step of the way.”

According to the Ethics Commission, the investigation began in 2020 following federal prosecutors’ announcement of an investigation into the 2017 Las Vegas trip, noting Lee’s involvement.

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