Daily Press Staff Writer
In the wake of The Huntley hotel receiving the second largest penalty ever from the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the City Council is requesting City staff look inward at Santa Monica election laws.
“It has become clear … that the public is aware there are a number of situations where we have been unable to enforce our local campaign law,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said.
Tuesday, McKeown and Councilmember Sue Himmelrich brought forward a motion for the City Attorney’s Office to look into how election violations can be caught earlier in the future.
The City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren said staff would return with a broad review in February 2018.
The report will be classified as a study session, meaning the Council will be able to give further direction.
Councilmembers McKeown, Himmelrich and Pam O’Conner will be up for reelection next year if they choose to run.
McKeown noted the FPPC stumbled upon the Huntley case through its own tracking of contributions – there was no whistleblower in the case. FPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga confirmed his statements to the Daily Press.
“I’m hesitant to give away too many trade secrets,” Wierenga said when asked how exactly the FPPC discovered the laundered money, instead offering a metaphor. “That’s our lane on the highway and our people are used to driving in it.”
The Huntley paid a $310,000 FPPC fine for money it funneled into the 2012 and 2014 elections for slow-growth candidates who would oppose development at the nearby Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows.
The Huntley reimbursed more than forty contributions made by hotel employees, spouses, friends and family members and nearby businesses in order to get around Santa Monica’s local candidate contribution limit of $325.
In total in 2012, the Huntley made 44 contributions that totaled $86,650 in the names of others.
“The Huntley took issue with the Miramar’s proposed expansion, primarily due to its adverse impacts on local traffic, its blocking of the sunlight and views of adjacent and nearby buildings, and the disruption to the quality of life that would be caused by its lengthy construction timetable,” the FPPC stipulation said.
Mayor Ted Winterer, Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis, and Councilmember Terry O’Day received contributions. The FPPC found the candidates did not know the truth about the contributions.
When the candidates filed the campaign statements, the donations appeared to be from intermediaries and not The Huntley.
When the FPPC revealed the Huntley admitted to the allegations this summer, the case was long past the statute of limitations for local prosecution. The fact raises significant questions as donations begin pouring into the 2018 race.
“Laws will only be abided by if proved enforceable,” said Unite Here! Local 11 researcher Danielle Wilson during the Council’s November discussion of the matter.
The hotel workers’ union, Santa Monica Forward and the League of Women Voters has encouraged the City to look into options for recourse.
O’Day, whose candidacy received $2,925 from the contributions according to the stipulation, also urged the City not to back away from delving into the facts of what happened at the Huntley.
McKeown, however, said his intent was not to look backward, calling the Council “stewards of integrity of local governance.”
“I understand there are people in the community who very much want to watch someone get spanked.
I get that,” McKeown said, arguing the statute of limitations makes an internal investigation moot. “That’s just putting city resources down the drain.”
The FPPC is still investigating allegations of coordinated activity between 2016 City Council candidate Armen Melkonian’s campaign and Yes on LV, which supported the measure he co-authored.
A complaint alleges the two groups acted together with little independence,which would make the Yes campaign a candidate-controlled committee subject to a $340 limit on donations.
The FPPC generally prioritizes investigations that could influence the next election.