EDITOR’S NOTE: Lobbyist Steve Afriat, identified in the original version of this story as a former campaign consultant to West Hollywood City Council candidate Steve Martin, says that he actually served as a fundraiser, not a campaign consultant. WEHOville regrets the error.
No less than four out of five sitting West Hollywood city council members have hired a man by the name of Steve Afriat, at one time or another, to run their campaigns or raise money for them. Of course, campaigning is a seasonal business. The rest of the time, Afriat is a lobbyist – and a highly successful one, at that. The dual roles create a web of relationships that leave him and his clients open to allegations of conflicts of interest.
Afriat, who looks kind of like a cross between Vincent Price and Santa Claus, with a warm smile, unnerving eyes and a high, melodic voice that borders on singing is, like most lobbyists, eminently charming. He is hardly the only lobbyist in Los Angeles County to double as a political operative. Rick Taylor (currently running LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s reelection bid) and Harvey Englander (head of one of the biggest lobbying firms in Los Angeles and uncle of LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander) are two other prominent double threats in LA. But it’s Afriat who stands out in West Hollywood given that he has worked for council members John Heilman, Abbe Land, Jeffrey Prang and John Duran. This year, he’s consulting for incumbents Duran and Mayor Prang, both of whom are seeking re-election in March.
Afriat is funny in an especially relaxed, effortless way. When asked how old he is, he answered: “I’m a gay guy, I don’t want to say how old I am!” After getting a laugh, he added: “I remember Nixon. Do the math.”
As a lobbyist, Afriat represents numerous companies who have business with the City of West Hollywood, such as Ace Outdoor Advertising, Marriott, and the Pacific Design Center. His City of Los Angeles clients include Walmart and Clear Channel, a major billboard company in the County and in West Hollywood. Clear Channel was a major funder of the group “Concerned Neighbors Against Illegal Billboards” that helped defeat Measure A, a controversial West Hollywood billboard tax and regulation ballot initiative in 2011.
“I’ve worked with him on both sides of issues,” said Elyse Eisenberg, chair of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association. “I much prefer to be on the same side as him. He is a pure professional. He is extremely well-versed in the subjects he represents. He always gets to the heart of the issue.”
But even Eisenberg, who considers Afriat a friend, had to admit that when it comes to his connections to both politicians and the businesses that want things from them, something’s not quite right.
“I think there’s potential problems there,” she said.
Others are a bit more blunt.
“There are so many conflicts of interest, it’s hard to know where to start,” said John Applegate, city council candidate Christopher Landavazo’s political consultant.
“He’s taking money from the members of city council, and then he’s taking money from businesses that are trying to influence them,” said Steve Martin, himself a candidate for city council. “That doesn’t pass the smell test.”
When these charges were brought up to Afriat, he feigned incredulity, as if it were an accusation he hasn’t heard a hundred times (the LA Times wrote about the dual roles of Afriat and other lobbyists at least as far back as 2001).
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I charge a fee to run campaigns. I’m not doing them any favors.”
That LA Times article revealed a flyer from Afriat’s lobbying firm telling prospective clients, “The secret of Afriat’s success is the political consulting arm of our firm — we represent elected officials in fund-raising and campaign management.”
“That was a completely misrepresentative article,” said Afriat. “What we were telling people at the time was: as a result of having relationships with elected officials, we understand what’s important to them. That’s what makes us effective lobbyists.”
Both Prang and Duran deny their decades-long relationships with Afriat have effected how they vote.
“I have voted in favor of Steve’s clients and against Steve’s clients, so that never affects me one way or another,” said Duran.
“To whatever extent city council has voted for things I have put before them, typically they do it with broad-based support,” said Afriat. “A lot of times, all five have voted with me. So maybe I have the merit on my side.”
Growing up in the Valley, Afriat says he was running campaigns when he was as young as 18-years old.
“At the time, the West Valley was a Republican area,” he said. “I would volunteer to run Democratic campaigns, just to give Republicans a hard time.”
In 1982, he got a job with then-LA City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky in District 5, which covered what is now West Hollywood. And so his first major campaign was in 1985, when Yaroslavsky ran for re-election – unopposed. Afriat has run numerous political campaigns since then, for politicians such as former Congresswoman Jane Harman, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz and City Council President Herb Wesson and Sheriff Lee Baca.
“Over time, I would meet people who wanted help with particular projects downtown,” said Afriat. “I realized it would be a benefit to start, you know, paying my bills, to take on that kind of work,” he said, referring to lobbying local government.
In Los Angeles, lobbyists aren’t allowed to contribute directly to candidates (unlike in West Hollywood, where Afriat is free to contribute up to $500, and does, to candidates through his business, which shows up on quarterly reports as “The Political Machine”).
However, lobbyists can raise money for candidates. In 2010, Afriat’s firm raised more money for Los Angeles candidates than any other lobbying firm (just under $60,000 in solicited donations that were given to the candidates, according to the City Ethics Commission). In 2011, it was No. 3 with $57,000. West Hollywood doesn’t keep track of lobbyists’ fundraising and receipts
“Fundraising’s kind of labor intensive, so I’ve kind of backed away from that,” Afriat said.
Still, it’s enough money to raise eyebrows. Ron Kaye, the former editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Daily News, now a blogger who frequently rails against local government, , said the system creates “a giant circle jerk, where there is no quid pro quo.”
“The money doesn’t necessarily go to the person who does the favors,” Kaye said. “The contract goes to someone else, but then someone else pays off the lobbyist. That’s the LA system. It’s a large but tight circle.”
Bob Stern, the former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-profit organization that provides research, analysis and consulting on governmental issues to encourage civic engagement, said working for West Hollywood-elected officials gives lobbyists a leg up – instant access, while the public has to wait in line.
“It obviously gives him a great advantage when he is lobbying someone he has put in office,” said Stern.
“I don’t know what that means,” Afriat replied calmly. “I call them, they return my call. West Hollywood council members have a great reputation for being accessible.”
Indeed, West Hollywood is a small town. Prang said he runs into his constituents in the grocery store and routinely gives out his cell phone number.
“Everybody in West Hollywood has instant access to city council,” Prang said. “I return every call I get.”
Prang and Afriat’s relationship goes back to around 1989, when Prang worked for him, getting paid by the hour to make fundraising calls on behalf of Afriat’s clients.
“He’s been an important part of the community,” Prang said. “He represents things that are good for West Hollywood.”
Afriat lives in Sherman Oaks and works in Burbank, but his WeHo roots run deep. He was on the committee that organized West Hollywood’s incorporation as a city in 1984, and he was a cofounder of both the AIDS Walk and the West Hollywood Democratic Club (he shared a ride to the first meeting with legendary WeHo activist Ruth Williams, who helped fight to get the first rent control ordinance in Los Angeles County passed in West Hollywood).
He’s also on the board of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee, the body that interviews candidates and decides which one to endorse – yet another conflict of interest, according to Applegate, the political consultant. Afriat said that at the time of the candidate interviews, he hadn’t taken on Prang and Duran as clients yet. Chamber of Commerce President Genevieve Morrill confirmed that, although she noted that “he was very up front about the possibility of conflict,” she said.
Afriat said he’s glad that his clients’ opponents are choosing to attack him instead of his clients. But upon hearing that one of his accusers was Steve Martin, a former city council member as well as a former client of his, Afriat’s voice became tinged with anger.
“He is so disingenuous,” Afriat said. “When he was on the city council, he kowtowed to lobbyists, was wined and dined by developers. Now that he’s not on the city council, he’s anti-development?”
He added: “He used a lobbyist as his (fundraising) consultant!” referring to Martin’s past hiring of Afriat as a fundraising consultant in 1990 and 1994.
When pressed as to whether or not he was conceding that hiring lobbyists to work on your campaign, or fundraise for it was a bad thing, afriat parried deftly.
“I’m attacking Steve Martin for saying it’s wrong to be close to lobbyists when he is,” said Afriat, his voice rediscovering its melody. “He’s a hypocrite.”