Council, city attorney argue ethics of campaign investigation

The Malibu City Council pushed scheduled agenda items aside to deal with the issue at the forefront of most residents’ minds — the closure of Pacific Coast Highway.

After hearing testimony from three Caltrans engineers, council members voted unanimously to launch a major coordinating effort that would pull together the agencies involved, as well as elected officials on the state level. (See related story.)

“Right now, we’re sitting here in this community with a dagger in our heart,” said Councilman Harry Barovsky. Barovsky made a motion to bring together city staff, decision-making person from Caltrans, the governor’s office, Sheila Kuehl, Tom Hayden and Zev Yaroslavsky’s office and a representative of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce to work out a plan to accelerate the effort to reopen the highway. Barovsky said it’s important to include “the people from Caltrans who are capable of making the decision to work 24 hours a day.” The council unanimously approved the motion.

Agreement went by the wayside, however, when City Attorney Christi Hogin asked the council to approve agreements with lawyers to represent the city on municipal matters. The council approved hiring a law firm that specializes in eminent domain but balked at hiring an outside lawyer to investigate allegations of campaign fraud in April’s municipal election. The investigation involves a Political Action Committee set up to support the election campaign of Councilman Tom Hasse.

“If Christi Hogin is to be the sole counsel, she will be investigating, basically, her bosses’ constituents and as we note, she can be fired by any three council members,” said resident and attorney Dave Kagon, adding a contrary vote “sends a clear and unambiguous signal and message that the City Council members are more interested in protecting a core of their supporters than they are in upholding the laws of the city they swore to uphold.”

Tami Clark questioned the need for an outside attorney, pointing out that the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission exists to investigate campaign fraud. “Are you opening up another Pandora’s Box?” Clark asked, adding she doubted the city’s budget could handle the expense.

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Hogin said she makes projections of the costs of the city’s outside legal services and the cost of hiring Roger Brown, her choice for the investigation, falls well within those limits. Hogin told the council, “I have a budget, and I’ve always come within it, and I take that obligation very seriously.”

Councilman Tom Hasse asked Hogin what the difference was between complaints raised following other campaigns and the current ones. Hogin told Hasse, in the past, “there was absolutely no indication that our local campaign finance law had been violated on its face.” In this case, she said, “I have factual questions whether things actually happened or didn’t happen, and that is going to take an investigation.”

Hasse recused himself, stating while he had no legal obligation to step aside for the discussion and vote, he would do so for the sake of appearances. But his recusal also took away a deciding vote, since a 2-2 vote means a measure does not pass. The lines were quickly drawn, Barovsky and Mayor Joan House in favor of the request, council members Walt Keller and Carolyn Van Horn opposed.

“I don’t quite see all the parameters,” said Van Horn. “It’s very Kafkaesque. I don’t think, and I’m sure that’s going to get in the paper, but I don’t see anybody here.”

Van Horn further asked, “Why do you get to cover yourself by hiring a second opinion?”

“It’s not a matter of covering,” Hogin replied. “They’re not going to say that it was me. They’re going to say that it was you. It’s you that I’m protecting.”

Councilman Walt Keller said, “I really am concerned that you haven’t even talked to the folks that are being charged, and you don’t want to tell us what the allegations are, right?”

“I’m not going to, and it would be unethical for me,” said Hogin. “I don’t think, Councilmember Keller, that you can make any judgments at all about how it’s being handled, since you have no information.”

“That’s right. That leaves me wide open doesn’t it?” replied Keller. “What is the evidence? Again, you don’t want to tell me, right?” “Well, it’s not your role,” said Hogin. “It would be unethical.”

Keller suggested that Hogin hold off until the Fair Political Practices Commission completes its investigation. When Hogin said that would not be possible, Keller said, “I have to fall back on why you should need outside help. It would seem much more efficient for you to do it since you wrote the law.” Keller asked Hogin for a written report in 30 days with answers to his questions.

“I believe strongly that to make our city attorney handle the investigation, even if she finds no wrong doing, many in the community will think the fix is in, and a cloud will continue to hang over the reputations of those people who are being accused of misdeeds as well as ours,” said Barovsky. “We’ll be painted with that same brush.”

“Based on the active involvement by all of us, the perception may exist that this council has a vested interest in the outcome,” said House. “This matter must be resolved, and the council must remain above reproach.”

“I want a cost, an estimate of the cost, not just to say you’ve gotten your budget,” said Van Horn. “And I want an estimate of the time.”

Barovsky asked Hogin for such an estimate. She replied it would take a couple of months and between $10,000 and $20,000.

“I don’t have time right now to make the comparison of the hourly rate and the stuff that is,” said Van Horn, being interrupted by laughter from the audience. Before the final vote, Van Horn said “I can’t support this at this time because I want you to put in writing what you said.”

The motion died with the split vote. It will be put back on the agenda in July, after Hogin’s written responses are submitted.

In other business, the council voted 5-0 to repair damage done by El Nino to roadways near Calle del Barco and repair the retaining wall on Rambla Orienta. There were three options in the staff report drawn up by Public Works Director John Clement: to proceed with reconstruction when geotechnical stability allows, using General Funds; to proceed with reconstruction only if and when an assessment district is approved by the residents; and to allow reconstruction only if and when FEMA authorizes reimbursement of the work. Estimates run at $650,000.

Residents Casey Cleveland and Karen York addressed the council, which voted unanimously in favor of the first option.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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