Buscaino spends donor funds on family trips to Hawaii and Italy

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 07: Los Angeles Mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino held a press conference on the Venice Boardwalk to announce his plans for a Safer Los Angeles to address the homelessness crisis in the city of LA. Venice Boardwalk on Monday, June 7, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino, shown in 2021, has spent tens of thousands of dollars from his officeholder account on travel expenses for his family. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor, has spent tens of thousands of dollars from his officeholder account on trips to Hawaii, Italy and elsewhere for his family since he was elected, according to a Times analysis of city records.

The spending, which is allowed under city ethics rules, far exceeds the amount spent by other elected city officials on travel for family members during this period, the analysis showed.

These accounts exist to help fund council members' office operations and constituent services. The money comes from donors, not taxpayers, and cannot be used for campaign purposes.

Buscaino has spent nearly $65,000 in officeholder account funds on travel with his family since 2013, the records show. The next highest total spent from officeholder funds by a council member on family travel during this period is $4,800.

Buscaino declined a request for an interview, but he said in a statement that his travel with his family “allows me to fulfill the City Charter mandate that I spend my entire time on official duties without depriving my young kids of time with their father.”

“Perhaps other elected [officials] are comfortable leaving their wife and kids at home for stretches of time while they’re traveling, but I’m not,” he added.

In 2019, the councilman went to Maui, where he attended the Hawaii State Assn. of Counties annual meeting. It took place at the Wailea Beach Resort, which "offers scenic luxury in a stunning travel destination. Experience stylish comfort along the water's edge in beautifully appointed, family-friendly hotel rooms," according to its website.

Buscaino was joined by his wife, Geralyn, and their two children. He paid more than $4,400 from officeholder funds for the family’s plane tickets, lodging and meals, according to disclosure forms filed with the City Ethics Commission.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino.
"Perhaps other elected [officials] are comfortable leaving their wife and kids at home for stretches of time while they're traveling, but I'm not," Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino said. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In 2016, Buscaino used donor funds to pay for a trip with his family to Italy. The weeklong excursion, which cost more than $15,200, included stays in Palermo and Rome in Buscaino's role as part of the Italian Business Exchange Delegation. Buscaino, fellow council members and other participants met with Foreign Ministry officials and local business leaders.

Council members who have served with Buscaino since he was elected, including Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz and Curren Price, also have used officeholder funds to pay for family travel. Krekorian spent about $4,800, which was the next highest total, on a four-day trip to Mexico with his wife and two children in 2015.

Krekorian and his wife were invited by the Armenian ambassador to Mexico City to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Hugh Esten, special advisor to Krekorian, said in a statement.

“Councilmember Krekorian used his officeholder account funds to pay for his own travel expenses, and the airfare of his wife and children, as the law explicitly permits,” Esten said, noting that the children were 9 and 6 at the time.

Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School and former City Ethics Commission president, said these accounts "actually do serve a good purpose," because they give elected officials a limited pot of cash — not from the taxpayers — to help pay for activities that serve their districts.

Subsidizing the travel of family members is probably not what this money was meant for, Levinson said.

"It's just that it's not envisioned for this money to be used this way," she said. "I think the idea is probably you can bring your family when necessary for public business, but that you should be really judicious about that."

The city’s ethics rules say that "an elected city officer may control one officeholder committee to pay for expenses that relate to carrying out the duties associated with holding elected city office."

Paying for travel expenses with officeholder funds is permitted as long as the spending happens "the day prior to, the day of, and the day following the event if the attendee cannot reasonably be housed at home. These expenditures also may be incurred and made for members of the elected city officer's immediate family and household."

In 2022, the mayor and other citywide officeholders may not raise or spend more than $193,000 a year from these accounts; the limit is $120,000 for council members.

Since 2013, Buscaino has spent more than $659,000 from the account for all purposes, almost $182,000 more than Price, the next highest overall spender, according to The Times' analysis.

Buscaino is running for mayor on a platform that includes increasing the size of the Los Angeles Police Department and clearing homeless encampments.

During his time on the council, Buscaino has taken an active role in organizations such as the National League of Cities. He has regularly attended conventions and assumed a leadership position in the group, whose members are local elected leaders "focused on improving the quality of life for their current and future constituents," according to its website.

Buscaino's family has accompanied him to the organization's meetings, and other conferences, in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., Salt Lake City, Miami, Cleveland, West Palm Beach, Fla., San Antonio and New York, according to disclosure forms.

In 2018, the Buscaino family traveled to Catalina Island to attend a “4th of July community celebration” and a meeting with a local elected official, according to his disclosure. Lodging at the Pavilion Hotel cost about $590 out of his officeholder account.

Buscaino's spending of officeholder funds for all travel — not just with his family — also significantly outpaced other council members who have served as long as he has.

Records show that he has spent more than $122,000 on all travel, which can include staff members' trips as well as his own, since taking office. The next biggest spender on all travel from officeholder funds is Councilman Gil Cedillo, at nearly $49,000.

In July 2019, for example, Cedillo spent $1,250 from his officeholder account to attend a conference with Major League Baseball and attend the 90th All-Star Game at Progressive Field in Cleveland. His disclosure forms said it was "for the purpose of Consulting/Coordination efforts between City of Los Angeles & LA Dodgers for LA Event in 2020."

In a statement, Cedillo said this travel was for city business, pointing out that this year's All-Star Game is scheduled to be played in Los Angeles and asserting that it will “spur positive economic growth" in the city.

Two other mayoral candidates have officeholder accounts but have spent little on travel from them.

City Atty. Mike Feuer has spent more than $185,000, including $16,700 on travel, since being elected in 2013.

Councilman Kevin de León has spent just over $60,000 — none of it on travel — since taking office in October 2020, according to disclosure filings.

Some council members have used their officeholder funds to pay for events in their district, or to hire consultants. Some use the money to pay for meals or small gifts that they gave to their staff or constituents.

In December 2021, Council President Nury Martinez reported spending more than $300 on cupcakes for several of her colleagues on the council.

“The last few years have been incredibly challenging so the council president likes to treat her colleagues on their birthdays by getting cupcakes for them and their families,” Martinez spokeswoman Sophie Gilchrist said.

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell reported in his June 2021 filing that he paid Public Storage nearly $830 for a storage unit for a homeless couple. In December 2018, Paul Koretz purchased $260 in Starbucks gift cards for parking attendants, janitors and sergeants at City Hall.

In 2022, the most a donor can give to an officeholder account is $900. City Council members can also transfer $120,000 from their election fundraising accounts to their officeholder accounts.

Bob Stern, a co-author of the state’s Political Reform Act, approved by voters in 1974, said he saw no issue with Buscaino traveling far and wide to meet with government officials from across the country and world. It's bringing the family that troubles the longtime lawyer and ethics expert.

"I think there is a problem when people take advantage of this system," he said. "Again, for me, it's only the family going that's the problem. It's not about him going on the trips. I would actually encourage [government officials] to go to Paris to look at the high-speed train. It's important to do that. So I want to make a real distinction between going on trips legitimately versus taking the family."

For the record:
11:59 a.m. March 6, 2022: An earlier version of this article said Councilman Kevin de León reported spending nearly $223,000 from his officeholder account since he took office in 2020. The actual total is just over $60,000.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.