Freebies and the Mayor

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Antonio Villaraigosa is, to be sure, a smart enough guy to be elected mayor. You'd probably like him if you sat down to dinner or had him at your July 4 barbecue.

But he's not doing his image any favors these days.

When the mayor took his girlfriend to a Lakers playoff game and sat in free courtside seats, it was – to use the scientific term – dumb.

Things have only gotten worse since Villaraigosa and his staff have amateurishly evaded questions about the places he goes for free. The Oscars and Emmys. A Beyonce concert. Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

He doesn't pay his way almost anywhere, it seems. Sometimes he brings Lu Parker, sometimes he's solo. After all, she does have to cover stories for KTLA News some nights.

The media coverage of all this has been a little overheated. After all, he's the mayor of Hollywood and should show his face at many of the signature events in town.

But the particular way that Villaraigosa goes about it has created much of the mayor's problem. And that's not surprising, for those who follow him.

His image as an astute politician has been eroding almost since the day he took office in 2005.

Remember that day? He strolled down Spring Street with his wife and kids, the talk of the town.

We all know what happened to the family man image. Lately it's the mayor's other chosen image, as a man of the people, that's been taking a beating.

If he had just sat in the merely great Lakers seats, a few rows back, the brewing scandal over his freebies would have lost some of its steam.

But no, he had to sit court-side in Jack Nicholson country. That made sure his picture – and Parker's – would be taken and shown everywhere.

The story's the same at Dodger Stadium, where the mayor sits not in the bleachers or on the loge level. He has watched at least a dozen games, and I think many more, in the owners' box.

That puts him right on the field, close enough to the dugout for Joe Torre to hear Villaraigosa order a hot dog.

Everybody in the park can see Villaraigosa there in his Dodgers windbreaker. And I bet none of us are thinking, isn't that nice Antonio gets to sit between Tommy Lasorda and Frank McCourt. Or, until this season, sometimes next to Jamie McCourt.

What most fans don't know is that the man in the suit who's often hovering nearby is the team's lobbyist in City Hall.

And that's, ultimately, why this scandal is so troubling.

The free access is nice for Villaraigosa, of course. He's a big baseball fan. It also benefits Frank McCourt, who needs City Hall approval to develop Dodger Stadium's parking lots into a year-round money maker.

McCourt also operates the LA Marathon and has always wanted to have an NFL stadium in LA. This all makes him a big consumer of political power.

Same for AEG, the company that supplies Villaraigosa with free tickets to Staples Center. Look up AEG in the dictionary, it says conflict of interest with City Hall.

Situations like this are why the city has a law against elected officials taking more than a token number of free tickets. And it's why Villaraigosa's freebies are now being looked at by the DA and the city's ethics commission.

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For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.