LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles City Council struggled again Wednesday with a still-unfolding racism scandal that led to the resignation of its former president and left behind a quandary about how to deal with a disgraced member who has resisted calls from President Joe Biden to step down.
On a 12-2 vote, the council agreed to explore possible additional, punitive steps against censured Councilman Kevin de León, including restricting his use of certain office funds and collaring publicly funded mailers he sends to constituents.
He is the only council member involved in the scandal still in office, allowing him to continue to collect his annual salary of nearly $229,000 — among the most lucrative paydays for city council members in the nation.
The scandal has strained racial tensions and become a national embarrassment for the nation's second most populous city, which also has been contending with an unchecked homeless crisis and rising crime rates. Meanwhile, three current or former council members have been indicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
The turmoil was triggered in October by a leaked recording of crude, racist comments from a year-old meeting involving de León, then-council President Nury Martinez, labor leader Ron Herrera and then-Councilman Gil Cedillo — all Latino Democrats — in which they plotted to expand their political power at the expense of Black voters during a realignment of council district boundaries. Herrera resigned and Cedillo's term ended in December.
The California Legislative Black Caucus has said the recording "reveals an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process."
Who leaked the recording on the website Reddit just weeks before the November midterm elections – and why – remains unknown. State and local law enforcement investigations are underway.
The move to potentially further restrict de León's activities followed the council's vote in October to censure him, Martinez and Cedillo, the strongest step the council can take to publicly reprimand them for their participation in the private meeting. The council cannot expel members — it can only suspend a member when criminal charges are pending. De León also was stripped of his committee assignments.
He's also facing a possible recall election that could remove him from office. De León has apologized repeatedly but said he will not resign.
The latest proposal appeared to reflect growing frustration by colleagues who consider de León a political pariah and say they are not willing to work with him, while pressuring the former state Senate leader to reconsider his decision to stay in office.
Council President Paul Krekorian said city law was "lacking in clarity" when a council member falls short of ethical conduct standards but doesn't commit a crime. He said the proposal approved Wednesday asked city officials, including the city attorney, to assess other possible steps against de León "so this council can decide what options are available."
Those also could include limiting his ability to introduce certain types of motions, and limiting his ability to authorize contracts.
"The council cannot legally take any action to remove Councilmember de León from the Council — only the people of District 14 can do that," Krekorian said in an earlier statement, referring to a possible recall election. "But the council cannot appear to tolerate racist sentiments like those heard on the ... recording."
He said none of the possible steps would affect funding or services for the district.
After an absence from council, De León has been maneuvering to return to the public sphere, despite being reviled by colleagues who have openly rebuked him in the chamber. His appearances at council meetings have set off raucous protests, and last month he scuffled with an activist who heckled him at a holiday toy giveaway.
In remarks in council, De León called the proposal "deeply troubling," saying it would reduce residents in his district to "second-class status."
De León called the provisions outlined in the motion a "slippery slope," which if approved, would undermine "the rights of my constituents to be equally served."
As at meetings in recent weeks, a series of residents who spoke called de León a disgrace who should resign, but others urged him to continue his work in his heavily Latino district, which includes downtown Los Angeles.