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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Is the LA City Ethics Commission’s accusation against John Lee a political gambit?

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Good morning! It’s Monday, November 6.  Welcome to Katchup Briefing, the Korea Daily’s weekly English newsletter. Here, I will keep you informed with the latest news updates and perspectives from the Korean American community. If you’re interested in exploring more articles and columns from previous weeks, please visit koreadailyus.com.

Incumbent Councilmember John Lee (left) and Serena Oberstein (right), the former president of the LA City Ethics Commission [Screenshot]

The former president of the LA City Ethics Commission, Serena Oberstein, announced on October 30 that she is running for the City Council seat in District 12. Her announcement comes as Councilmember John Lee (District 12), the only Korean American on the LA City Council, prepares for re-election in 2024.

This news followed an unexpected move by the LA City Ethics Commission, which filed ethics violation charges against Councilmember Lee on October 2. The commission leveled a total of 10 counts of ethics violations against Lee, alleging breaches of the City’s Ethics Code. They claim Lee accepted and failed to disclose a total of $7,830 in expenditures during trips to Las Vegas in 2016 and 2017. At the time, Lee was the chief of staff for then-Councilmember Mitchell Englander, who was sentenced to prison in 2020 for accepting bribes during a Las Vegas trip in 2017.

Councilmember Lee has vehemently denied these ethics violation charges and has committed to defending himself. Lee’s office quickly denounced the allegations as “completely false,” asserting that the commission “drastically inflated the amount of food and beverages consumed during a June 2017 trip in Las Vegas.” Lee also noted that he had no issues with the FBI’s investigation into Englander’s case. He suggests that “Ethics Commission investigators have disregarded the four-year statute of limitations to ensure their accusations coincide with my 2024 re-election.” Lee suspects that there may be political motives behind these accusations.

The fact that Oberstein, once at the helm of the LA City Ethics Commission, is running for the 12th District seat has spurred allegations that the ethics charges against the incumbent councilmember, John Lee, are a “political stunt” designed to create a pretext for her candidacy.

Following the commission’s accusations, Oberstein claims to have been encouraged by several political consultants to run, suggesting that her candidacy is a response to Lee’s alleged ethics violations. In her October 30 statement, Oberstein expressed, “Given the deeply concerning allegations against our councilmember [John Lee], … I am uniquely prepared to succeed where our councilmember has failed.”

However, there are circulating rumors of possible collusion between the ethics commission and Oberstein’s camp to enhance her council campaign, speculation that intensified after her candidacy announcement.

Oberstein had intended to run in the 2019 special election for the District 12 seat but was delayed by a judicial mandate requiring a two-year interval post-resignation from the Ethics Commission. In the meantime, she has been gearing up for the next opportunity. (John Lee won the 2019 special election and the subsequent 2020 election for Council District 12.)

Before Oberstein’s declaration, Lee had no significant opposition. While two candidates were registered for the 12th District, the other lacked recognition, funds, and campaign activity. With Oberstein joining the race, it has now become a significant contest between two main candidates. Oberstein, who is Jewish and serves as the executive director of Jewish World Watch, offers her ethics commission experience and public sector background. Her husband, political consultant Jeremy Oberstein, is known for his substantial political clout.

It remains to be seen how much support Oberstein, a Democrat, can muster in the 12th District, which has a sizable Democratic electorate. Councilmember John Lee, an independent, has so far been perceived as the frontrunner.

Despite Oberstein’s entry, experts maintain that Lee is still the favorite to win. In terms of fundraising, he has been formidable, amassing $308,352 with $242,905 in cash on hand as of the third quarter of the year. Oberstein’s fundraising efforts have not yet been disclosed.

By Mooyoung Lee   lee.mooyoung@koreadaily.com