Daily Press Staff Writer
Nearly four months after a local hotel received one of the biggest fines in FPPC history for money it spent in Santa Monica elections, two City Councilmembers are asking for a City review of the case.
In August, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined the Huntley Hotel $310,000 for 62 violations during the 2012 and 2014 elections.
The state investigation found the Huntley supported candidates and causes that would oppose development plans at the neighboring Fairmont Hotel.
The FPPC said the Huntley illegally channeled donations through employees and businesses totaling more than $97,000 – money was then spent in support of several current City Councilmembers, including Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis and Ted Winterer, and the groups Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City.
The Council has received letters from the League of Women Voters and Unite Here Local 11, among others, asking them to look into the violations. The League specifically requested an independent investigation into whether local enforcement of the Santa Monica Elections Code is called for regarding the Huntley’s misconduct.
Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich placed an item on tonight’s Council agenda asking the “City Attorney review recent correspondence…regarding alleged violations of Santa Monica campaign finance laws and recommend avenues for further action, including the possibility of appointing special counsel.”
Both Councilmembers told the Daily Press they believe the Huntley case is past the statute of limitations for local prosecution. By the time the FPPC revealed the violations, it may have been too late for the City Attorney to do anything.
“The state is thorough but slow on election investigations, and we’ve been asked by several different entities whether that means our own local laws regarding campaigns can’t be enforced in the meantime,” McKeown said in an email to the Daily Press.
“The Council is prohibited by the City Charter from directing enforcement, and properly so, but it is our job to write enforceable laws and amend them if they are ineffective.”
Himmelrich said she wants the City Attorney’s office to look ahead to future elections.
“I think we need to get this kind of money out of politics,” Himmelrich said.
“I brought this forward to find out what we can to do regulate it in our city as opposed to on a state level and whether we have some leeway to fix it.”
Himmelrich, who largely self-funded her six-figure campaign for City Council in 2014, says she is most concerned about the bundling of checks and the ability to give to both candidates and the independent expenditure (IE) committees that support them.
“I thought the IEs in the 2016 election were really exorbitant,” Himmelrich said. Individuals and groups are limited to giving $340 directly to candidates’ campaigns.
The FPPC is still investigating complaints against Armen Melkonians and the Yes on Measure LV campaign alleging Melkonians improperly controlled multiple campaign committees during the election.
In January, the City Attorney’s office fined Councilman Terry O’Day for campaign contributions made during the 2016 election. The fine came after local organization, The Transparency Project, filed two complaints alleging O’Day accepted money from individuals who received contracts from the Council.
Under the Oaks rules, candidates who have previously served on the council are prohibited from accepting donations from companies or individuals that have received material benefits from the City while they were in office.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is currently looking into votes made by school board member Maria Leon-Vazquez that benefitted companies that had contracts with her husband, Councilmember Tony Vazquez.
The district itself, SMMUSD, is also looking into the votes involving Keygent, LLC and TELACU. Neither Leon-Vazquez nor her husband disclosed his income from the firms on their Statements of Economic Interest submitted to the city.
Vazquez told the Daily Press his wife was not aware who was receiving money from the contracts when she approved the items.
The City Council meets Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall, 1685 Main St.