LA mayor at center of Jackson donation flap

July 15, 2009 7:22:10 PM PDT
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not in the country on the day of Michael Jackson's memorial service, but his grinning face popped up on his Twitter site with a message urging fans to help the financially desperate city pay the tab for police and services. "Help LA give Michael the safe and orderly send-off he deserves," said a tweet in his name.

But when Villaraigosa returned from his nine-day getaway in South Africa, he changed his message. He ridiculed the fundraising drive and said the city will pick up the estimated $1.4 million bill for the Jackson event, even though he helped enlist billionaires and corporations to bankroll a public celebration for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers last month.

The abrupt reversal has yet to be fully explained as City Hall fields complaints that it bowed to political or corporate pressure while sticking taxpayers with an unjustified bill for a lavish celebrity tribute in a privately owned arena.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, a string of residents grumbled about the taxpayer expense at a time when the city is slashing spending and facing possible layoffs to close a projected $530 million deficit.

In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times said: "City Hall bumbling makes Los Angeles look laughably low-tech, shamefully disorganized, simultaneously an easy mark and a swindler, and cheap and pathetic besides."

A week ago, Villaraigosa seemed firmly behind the fundraising effort to recoup the cost of putting 3,200 police on the streets for crowd and traffic control, including spending $48,000 on sandwiches to feed them.

A press release issued from Villaraigosa's office last week quoted him asking for donations. But he told reporters Monday it was "ridiculous" to set up a Web site to collect money from the King of Pop's fans.

Questions of the mayor's role surfaced almost as soon as his Twitter page lit up with messages urging donations the day of the memorial. When asked how the mayor was tweeting from Africa, spokesman Matt Szabo told the LA Observed blog that Villaraigosa either writes his own messages or "I approve with direct authorization."

Szabo said in a statement Monday that the mayor first learned of the plan to collect donations on the Fourth of July weekend. The statement then jumps to the following week, saying Villaraigosa "did not support" an online Web site for credit card donations but "allowed the site to remain online" until he returned from Africa. It's not clear what will happen with the $35,000 that was collected.

Acting Mayor Jan Perry, who was sitting in for the vacationing Villaraigosa, issued a statement saying she directed city employees to set up a site to collect donations, but the mayor's staff removed it after creating a link to Villaraigosa's personal Web page.

The mayor's office did not respond to questions submitted Tuesday asking, among other things, why a statement was issued in the mayor's name asking for donations if he never supported the idea.

"At a time of great fiscal strain, it's hard to explain why the mayor would decline voluntary donations," said Claremont McKenna College political scientist John Pitney. With mixed signals coming out of City Hall about the Jackson donations "that's not a sign of a mayor in control."

The Council plans to consider a motion to determine if anything can be recouped from Jackson's family or AEG, which owns the Staples Center where the memorial was held.

City Councilman Dennis Zine said the full cost of the event could far surpass the estimate, and he said there was confusion in the chain of command at City Hall in the mayor's absence.

The issue is sticky for Villaraigosa, whose political committees have banked at least $29,000 in contributions from AEG employees. The company donated money toward the Lakers' celebration at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last month. AEG Live was the promoter behind Jackson's planned comeback concerts in London.

The confusion underscored the fact the city doesn't have a policy for how to finance and organize large, impromptu events like the Jackson memorial.

"How often does Elvis die? You can't have a policy on the death of Elvis," said political scientist Raphael Sonenshein of California State University, Fullerton. "If it hadn't been for this silly thing about the donations, it might have been a controversy that died a little faster."

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