DOWNTOWN — California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has sent a warning letter to the president of the group Santa Monicans for Quality Government but has declined to assess a fine for what it said were two violations of the state’s Political Reform Act.
In a related development, the public integrity division of the District Attorney’s Office, which also was asked to look into SMQG’s activities, on Friday said it would not open a criminal investigation into the matter.
“The complaint alleges misdemeanor conduct and we only prosecute felonies,” said Dave Demerjian, head of the Public Integrity Division. “So I’m just going to let the FPPC do what they’re going to do.”
The complaint against SMQG came from Diana Gordon, co-chair of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, and argued the organization had violated Santa Monica’s election laws by failing to file timely financial disclosure statements with City Hall prior to November’s election.
Gordon accused the group of violating campaign laws in order to use money raised from real estate interests to support candidates for Santa Monica City Council while hiding the identities of its donors. SMQG raised at least $41,000 from developers, property managers and a land use law firm to finance a series of campaign mailers sent to Santa Monica households supporting candidates including Pam O’Connor, Gleam Davis, Bob Holbrook and Terry O’Day.
Those candidates have all denied any involvement with SMQG.
The FPPC determined the group, headed by political consultant Fred Huebscher, filed its “statement of organization” with the Secretary of State’s Office six days late and filed its first financial disclosure form, covering the period from Jan. 1 to Oct. 16, four days late.
Since SMQG missed the deadlines by fewer than 10 days, FPPC Enforcement Chief Gary Winuk said he was closing the matter without assessing a monetary penalty.
Any future violation of the Political Reform Act, he wrote, will result in a fine of up to $5,000. The warning letter, dated Dec. 7, was obtained by the Daily Press on Thursday. It will be posted on the FPPC’s website next Friday, according to Winuk.
Reached on Friday afternoon, both Huebscher and Gordon argued the FPPC warning letter vindicated their positions.
“The most basic thing is that the FPPC made the appropriate findings and obviously said SMQG violated state law,” Gordon said. “It’s an important vindication for Santa Monica voters that the FPPC found that SMQG and its officers violated the two fundamental filing requirements for a slate mailer organization, both in terms of when they organized and what the contributions were of all the developers that contributed to the city mailings.”
Huebscher said he disagreed with the FPPC’s finding that two filing deadlines had been missed but did not plan to appeal the decision because “it would be very foolish to spend time and effort on something when it’s a warning.”
He said he was pleased that the FPPC confirmed his group was a state slate mailer organization.
In the letter, Winuk wrote that after completing its investigation, “the FPPC found that the activities of the Santa Monicans for Quality Government qualified it as a state slate mailer organization, rather than a city general purpose committee.”
While Huebscher argued that finding meant his group didn’t have filing requirements in Santa Monica, Gordon took a different view and said she continues to believe the group violated municipal law by failing to file its disclosure documents at City Hall.
She pointed to municipal code 11.04.100, which states: “Any candidate, committee, elected official or slate mailer organization filing a statement required by [the Political Reform Act] shall also file a copy of that statement with the City Clerk by the filing deadline specified in state law.”
Since the District Attorney’s Office has decided not to investigate her allegation that SMQG violated that law, Gordon said she’ll continue to look for a law enforcement agency that will.
“If the DA can’t do it, somebody’s got to be able to do it,” she said.
The City Attorney’s Office earlier said it couldn’t look into the matter because it posed a potential conflict of interest since several of the people tied to SMQG are council members or are closely associated with council members. As attorneys for the council, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie has said lawyers in her office aren’t in a position to investigate. Moutrie referred Gordon’s complaint about SMQG to the FPPC and to the District Attorney’s Office.
For his part, Huebscher said he wasn’t concerned about being held accountable for violating the Santa Monica code.
“[It’s] is so broadly written that it would apply to so many people it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Any candidate or independent expenditure group in the state, he argued, would be required to file disclosure forms in Santa Monica under the law.
“No judge is going to uphold this,” Huebscher said, adding that it may violate the U.S. Constitution’s free speech protections because it could be interpreted as an attempt to inhibit speech by placing undue burdens on groups engaged in political messaging.
He called the District Attorney’s decision not to investigate SMQG “good news” but said he would welcome any legal challenge alleging his group violated the code section.
“Bring it on, I can’t wait to go to court over this issue,” he said.