As the president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, Raquelle de la Rocha has one of the most important non-elected positions in Los Angeles city government.
De la Rocha, appointed to her unpaid position two years ago by Mayor Richard Riordan, is responsible for keeping track of the financial disclosures of the mayor, the members of the City Council and other city officials. She and the other four commissioners also oversee the city’s 12-member ethics staff and serve as judges when a city official is accused of an ethics violation.
De la Rocha has been interested in ethics since she majored in philosophy at UCLA in the early 1980s. But it was not until 10 years later that she turned her interest into a profession.
From 1990 to 1991, de la Rocha prosecuted attorneys accused of ethical violations as a trial counsel, then a senior litigator, with the State Bar of California. She then set ethics policy for lawmakers throughout the state as a commissioner with the California Fair Political Practices Commission from 1993 to 1995.
Aside from heading the city’s Ethics Commission, de la Rocha’s full-time job is senior counsel with Ballard, Rosenberg & Golper, a Universal City law firm specializing in labor and employment law.
Question: How did you personally get interested in the field of ethics?
Answer: I began as a philosophy major and ethics was something I was very interested in studying. I think it really became more practical for me when I was a prosecutor for the state bar and I prosecuted lawyers who had violated ethics laws. I found that work very rewarding and not just in the prosecutions themselves.
I think there are some people who are just ignorant, and they’re not dishonest. If you can give them the proper information and open their eyes a lot of people are just so busy with day-to-day life, they make mistakes and they do so out of ignorance, not out of bad intent.
It makes you feel good to know that you’ve helped someone to do the right thing, if it was only that they needed to know what the right thing was.
Q: What’s your involvement with the commission on a day-to-day basis?
Answer: We have a full-time person the executive director, Rebecca Avila who oversees the whole day-to-day operations. As president, I’m in contact with her. She updates me. I generally inform other commissioners through the monthly meetings.
Q: What’s your relationship with other city officials? Do you ever get calls from council members asking you to look into things?
A: We intentionally direct any kind of inquiries to our staff. Because if it’s a complaint that someone is violating the law, we need to remain unbiased on that. And we have a whistle-blower line an 800 number.
Generally, if someone has a policy issue let’s say one council member thinks, “Have you ever thought about regulating what lobbyists can do?” well, that’s an idea that I would definitely pass on to staff. So I’m not saying that we never deal with anyone outside. But generally, we would like for all of us to have access to the same information, so we usually request that people present things to the commission rather than go informally to one of us individually.
Q: Do you in fact get calls from council members or the mayor?
A: I do get calls because I’m president, and I always pass those calls on to staff or I share them with the fellow commissioners. There are some people with good ideas out there, so definitely those do get passed on.
Q: How about Mayor Richard Riordan? He has a lot of business interests in the city, and he has in the past abstained from certain issues. Have you had to deal with that?
A: Conflicts of interest are a violation of state law, and staff has forwarded various state law violations that they have uncovered to the state agency, which is the Fair Political Practices Commission. I used to sit on that commission, so I do know about how that commission works. I can’t really address any particular incident that you’re referring to, because the investigations we really can’t comment on.
Q: In the past, there has been some conflict between the Ethics Commission and the Fair Political Practices Commission when working on investigations together. Is that still the case?
A: I believe that’s no longer an issue. Over the past year and a half, our staff at the city Ethics Commission has worked very diligently in opening up those channels. It is my understanding currently that there are open channels and that the two agencies work together on enforcement matters.
Q: Critics have said that in the last year and a half, the Ethics Commission has been less tough.
A: I believe that no one knows about enforcement matters except the staff of the city Ethics Commission. And it’s just bad information for someone to make a judgment merely on results without looking at the whole process how long investigations take, or whether good educational programs resulted in less enforcement matters because people are complying with the law. I think it’s just incorrect to conclude that if there has been a period of time when no fines were levied or actions were pursued against people, that means that staff has not been as vigorous. Anyone who makes that conclusion isn’t looking at the whole picture.
We’re not interested in swift prosecutions. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to be fair, to give people accurate information and good education, and to be strong in the way we enforce. But we’re not out just to get headlines and high fines. And if we’re going to be criticized for that, I’d be willing to take that criticism. That’s not the way you do justice.
Q: So how does an outsider determine how the commission is doing, how the staff is doing?
A: They can look at our audit reports. We audit every campaign statement. We check the check stubs candidates get from banks. There are complete reports done every quarter on who’s receiving money, how it’s being spent, who are the lobbyists, where do they get their funds, how do they spend it. All of that information is made public in our reports, and other people can verify the work that is being done.
I, of course, have confidence because I know our staff members. I know the kind of dedication that they have. For the rest of the public, I think they have to be wary of sort of buying into cynicism of people who just want to say, “Oh there’s corruption out there and nobody’s doing anything about it.” People should try to be more informed than that, and try to see if there is evidence of corruption.
There’s no simple answer to the question of public cynicism. See, if you don’t have any high fines, if you don’t find anyone in a year and a half, people say, “Ah, see, they’re weak. No one’s actually watching the government officials.” And I think that’s an unfortunate product of years of actual corruption that existed in the United States, and it’s going to be hard to get people to step aside and look at where that cynicism comes from, and whether there are really facts supporting it.
Q: Beyond people wondering if you are doing a good job, there is a widespread view that elected officials are all on the take. How do you deal with that?
A: I personally am motivated by a desire to improve the system. I think the lack of voter turnout is in large part due to voter cynicism. And I would hope that having vigorous enforcement of ethics laws over a prolonged period of time might help change that. Certainly, that’s why we do the work we do. All the commissioners on the ethics commission donate their time. We aren’t paid a salary. We set aside time from our regular life to pursue these issues because they’re important to us. There’s not an easy answer to that question, unfortunately.
Raquelle de la Rocha
Title: President, Los Angeles City Ethics Commission
Born: 1958, Los Angeles
Education: UCLA, Juris Doctor, 1987, and B.A., philosophy, 1983
Most admired person: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Hobbies: Gardening, skiing
Turning point in career: Being encouraged to go to law school by attorney Alan Frieman, for whom she worked as a legal secretary
Personal: Engaged, two daughters