Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating whether certain expenses West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem John Duran charged to the city were improper, the Los Angeles Times reported May 5.
Duran, an attorney, was first elected to the West Hollywood City Council in 2001, and has served as mayor several times since then. He also has a long history of prominent involvement in the LGBT movement, and has been involved as a lawyer in several significant gay rights cases, accomplishments for which he was recently recognized by Frontiers magazine.
The expenses under investigation consist of roughly $7,000 Duran allegedly charged to the city over a three-year period, 2008-2011, for meals at West Hollywood restaurants.
The reimbursements came to light as the result of a public records request for city officials’ credit card receipts and related documents filed in 2011 by community activist Ed Buck. The city has since provided hundreds of pages of receipts and expense forms to prosecutors. It has also taken back councilmembers’ credit cards and made spending rules more stringent.
According to David Demerjian, who heads the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division, the expenses are suspect because state rules permit reimbursement for meals and related expenses only for “necessary city business,” which Demerjian says does not include meals taken within a councilmember’s own city.
Demerjian said the district attorney’s office has never prosecuted a city official for expensing meals in his or her own city, but added, “I don’t mind if Mr. Duran is a test case. The law is you can be reimbursed if it is a necessary expense. The meeting may be necessary, but the meal isn’t in West Hollywood.”
Other coucilmembers’ meal expenses “paled in comparison” to Duran’s, Demerjian said.
West Hollywood City Attorney Michael Jenkins disagrees with Demerjian’s analysis, saying that Duran did nothing wrong and that he acted within West Hollywood rules and city policy, in accordance with state law AB 1234.
City officials “work for a living” in other jobs, Jenkins said, “and it is very difficult to find the time necessary to conduct city business, so they meet with city employees or their deputies over lunch.”
Duran’s attorney, George Bird, characterized the District Attorney’s interpretation of the law as a “novel approach” in a telephone interview with Frontiers. “If you want to meet with constituents,” he said, “if you want to meet with the developer, if you want to meet with your chief of staff because you have a full-time job and the only time to meet is during the noon hour because you’re working during the day, if you consume a meal during that meeting, you must pay for that yourself and not be reimbursed by the municipality. If you’re out of town, say at a conference in Sacramento, then the D.A. takes the position that reimbursement for that meal is necessary—I guess under a theory that while you still have to purchase your own meal, maybe you can’t go home to use your own kitchen. ... At what point [between, for example, West Hollywood and Sacramento] does it become a violation of the law, according to the district attorney?”
“It doesn’t matter if it is lunch or breakfast outside the boundaries [of West Hollywood],” Jenkins said, echoing Bird. “It doesn’t make a difference. Is there something special about Sacramento versus Downtown L.A.? No. That is not a valid legal distinction.”
Prosecutors told The Times they are aware that the issue of whether a city official who complies with city rules can nonetheless be found liable for violating state law is uncharted legal territory.
Bird asserts that to impose such liability would be unfair. “Despite the city’s longstanding rules and guidelines regarding reimbursement for these meals while conducting city business, and Councilmember Duran’s reliance on those longstanding rules, and the opinion of the city attorney, and the other city councilmembers who have been doing the same thing, he now finds himself as ... a test case.”
The amounts at issue in West Hollywood are miniscule compared to recent scandals in such cities as Bell, Vernon and Irwindale, a fact prosecutors concede. They nonetheless maintain that the West Hollywood situation involves principles they say need to be legally tested.
Plainly, there is tension between the district attorney’s and the city’s views. As JoAnne Speers of the Institute for Local Government in Sacramento put it, “The question is what is being accomplished for the public at the meal. The analysis for Mr. Demerjian is whether it is legal. For the community, it is a question of whether the community feels it is the best use of their resources.”
The case “most likely could have been handled by the district attorney’s announcement that from this point forward, consumption of a meal and reimbursement within the jurisdiction would be viewed by the district attorney as an improper use of public funds, so that everybody would be put on notice as to what the ‘sheriff’s’ new rules are,” Bird said, adding that it is “ironic that there’s currently an election to elect a new ... district attorney.”
“John Duran is a dedicated, decent, ethical, hardworking representative,” Bird went on. “It’s unfortunate that he’s the subject of a test case and that he will have to defend himself in criminal court. ... I dare say that John Duran is not the only elected representative in L.A. County who has consumed a meal paid for at city expense while conducting city business.”