CITY HALL — The group responsible for the most controversial political mailers in Santa Monica this election year received all of its funding from real estate interests, financial disclosure forms reviewed by the Daily Press on Monday showed.
The group known as Santa Monicans for Quality Government (SMQG), which in the past week has drawn criticism for sending out what education activists and the local police and firefighter unions said were misleading political ads for City Council candidates, received $41,000, the forms showed, all from developers, property managers and a land use law firm.
Texas-based developer Hines, which has proposed a nearly 1 million square-foot mixed-use project at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street, was the biggest donor, contributing $15,000.
Beverly Hills-based Edward Thomas Management Co., which manages Casa del Mar and Shutters hotel, donated $10,000, as did condominium builder NMS Properties.
The law firm Armbruster, Goldsmith & Delvac, which handled a recent development agreement with City Hall for bio-tech firm Agensys, donated $2,500, as did the Village Trailer Park LLC. Hotel management firm Maxser & Co. donated $1,000.
SMQG sent out several “slate mailers” in recent weeks, all promoting candidates for City Council.
One recent mailer from SMQG consisted of a 10-page booklet that looked like a sample ballot and was titled “Santa Monica Democratic Voter Guide.” The “guide” featured check marks next to Democratic candidates in statewide and national races as well as check marks next to recommended local candidates. The mailer, though, left off challenger Ted Winterer, who was endorsed by both the L.A. County Democratic Party and the Santa Monica Democratic Club, instead urging votes for Bob Holbrook, who was not endorsed by either organization.
Reached on Monday, Winterer called the mailer “a cynical attempt to confuse the electorate.”
Two other mailers that drew criticism prominently featured the names of well-known Santa Monica organizations but then listed only some of the candidates the organizations had endorsed.
In one mailer, SMQG asked, “Who does CEPS (Community for Excellent Public Schools) trust to protect our schools?” and failed to mention CEPS-endorsees Kevin McKeown and Winterer.
Another featured the logos of the local police and firefighters unions and listed the names of four public safety-endorsed candidates, but left off McKeown, the fifth candidate who received the groups’ backing. (McKeown also happens to be a regular target of developers, having weathered a negative campaign against him in 2006 financed by hotel companies including the Edward Thomas Management Co. that were organized under the banner “Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities.”)
Besides SMQG’s content, some local activists have also raised questions about the group’s financial disclosure practices.
Though most groups responsible for political ads in Santa Monica file documents with the City Clerk’s Office, which generally makes filings publicly accessible online within 24 hours, SMQG declined to do so and was planning to file disclosure documents only with the California Secretary of State’s Office.
One local group, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, filed a complaint over the move, which California’s Fair Political Practices Commission is reviewing.
On Monday, none of the group’s filings were available online through the Secretary of State’s website.
But after receiving the complaint from SMCLC and other inquiries about SMQG, City Clerk Maria Stewart said she contacted the SMQG’s accountant, Kinde Durkee, and received the forms by Monday afternoon.
SMQG’s president, political consultant Fred Huebscher, on Monday insisted his group had never intended to hide its donors.
“My intent is to follow the law,” he said, adding that the group filed its disclosure statements on time. The documents were filed in paper form, he said, rather than electronically — a move that results in a greater lag between filing and when the documents are posted online. Paper copies of the forms had been available prior to Monday at a Los Angeles County Clerk’s Office building in Norwalk, he said.
“Why would we do anything that we don’t need to do?” he said.
He said his group could still disclose additional donations. It’s not required to disclose contributions of less than $2,500 received in the past two weeks until January, he said.
Diana Gordon, co-chair of SMCLC, on Monday said the filings showed developers were behind what she called “some of the dirtiest tricks in any campaign” and “a front-out effort to hide from voters where the money was coming from.”
“It was very important to these hotels and developers not to be known as the donors in this campaign to unseat Kevin McKeown and also to hurt the campaign of Ted Winterer,” she said.
She also argued the campaigns of Pam O’Connor and Gleam Davis were tied to the group’s tactics, since both candidates’ campaigns are being managed by Huebscher, a professional political consultant who is president of the firm The Political Scientists.
Both candidates have denied being involved with SMQG.
For his part, Huebscher denied that the disclosure forms will taint the candidates the group supports, citing the wisdom of the late California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who famously said of lobbyists: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women, and vote against them, you don’t belong in the Legislature.”
“Just because Pam O’Connor has received money from developers doesn’t mean she’s staunchly pro-development,” he said.
He also faulted Santa Monica’s campaign disclosure laws, which limit the amount an individual can give to a candidate at $250.
“It makes it awfully hard to raise money,” he said, “therefore things like this occur.”