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Judge denies LA Councilman John Lee’s bid to short-circuit Ethics Commission action

Lee faces fines of more than $50,000 if it's determined he accepted gifts without disclosing them in 2017 while working as chief of staff to his predecessor Mitchell Englander, now a convicted felon.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles City Councilman John Lee's attempt to short circuit an Ethics Commission probe died after a state court judge on Tuesday dismissed his lawsuit against the five-member government body — though he can still make many of his legal objections to the probe in an administrative setting.

"The judge rendered a decision on which venue will hear this case first, not on the facts of my argument," Lee said in a written statement. "I look forward to presenting my case in the near future."

A former Republican who represents the northwesternmost parts of LA, Lee is accused of accepting gifts without disclosing them while he was working as the chief of staff for his predecessor, Mitchell Englander. Englander himself faced federal charges stemming from a 2017 trip to Las Vegas, during prosecutors said he was given $15,000 in cash on behalf of a real estate developer, along with free meals and bottle service. The real estate agent also paid a female escort to go to Englander's room, though it is unclear if Englander "accepted those services," according his plea agreement. In 2020, Englander pleaded guilty to criminal charges of obstructing an investigation and was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

The City Ethics Commission has accused Lee of also being on that trip — he was identified in Englander's indictment as "City Staffer B" — and of receiving a free two-night hotel stay and $1,000 in casino chips, which Lee lost playing baccarat. He also received roughly $4,300 in free food and alcohol.

Lee is not facing criminal charges, but rather 10 Ethics Commission charges: two counts of accepting excess gifts, three counts of failing to disclose gifts, four counts of misusing his position as Englander's chief of staff and one count of abetting Englander's misuse of his position. For each count, he can be fined up to $5,000 per violation or three times the amount of money that was improperly received, whichever is more. Which is to say, he faces a possible fine of more than $50,000 — a bit less than a quarter of his annual salary.

Weeks after the commission's 9-page accusation was filed, Lee sued to block the proceedings. In his complaint, Lee claimed the 2017 gifts fell outside the four-year statute of limitations. In response, the Ethics Commission argued Lee had concealed his unethical behavior by not disclosing his gifts, as he is required to do by law, and that the statute of limitations clock didn't start until the commission learned of the gifts given to Lee.

A different LA County judge granted the Ethics Commission's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in April, but also gave Lee the chance to amend his complaint, which the councilman did.

On Tuesday, LA County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant sided with the Ethics Commission as well.

"I do not believe the defects have been alleviated," Chalfant said from the bench. "Councilmember Lee is not even in the early stages of the Ethics Commission complaint, which has only gone through the probable cause determination. He clearly has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies."

Lee's lawyer, Faisal Gill, who recently ran for city attorney on a progressive platform, argued that Lee's failure to report the various gifts he received in Vegas didn't qualify as concealment because he had made an error, rather than purposely hiding the fact that he'd gotten them.

"There is plenty of case law that states mere omission is not concealment," Gill said. "There has to be some affirmative concealment."

Judge Chalfant said he agreed with that argument, but said it didn't apply to statute of limitations tolling.

"In criminal law, concealment has to be willful," Chalfant said.

Ethics Commission attorney Christina Cameron added, "But this is not a criminal matter. This is an administrative matter."

Chalfant said he didn't have to rule on what qualified as concealment. All he had to run on, he said, was whether Lee had exhausted his administrative options, and whether the commission has a "pattern and practice" of bringing enforcement actions after the statute of limitations has expired.

"The amended complaint alleges no facts of a pattern or practice by [the ethic's commission] that is in any way wrong or violative of a ministerial duty," Chalfant wrote in his tentative ruling, later adopted as final. "Nor would a pattern and practice claim halt the administrative hearing, which seems to be Lee’s goal."

He ruled that the Ethics Commission proceeding could continue, though Lee will be able to make his same argument about the statute of limitations at the commission's evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge.

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