CITY HALL — A local organization is accusing Mayor Pam O’Connor of violating the Santa Monica Municipal Code dozens of times over the course of several years for accepting campaign contributions from developers after she’d voted to approve their projects.
The Santa Monica Transparency Project submitted stacks of paperwork to the City Attorney’s Office on Wednesday, citing 24 violations by O’Connor of the Oaks Initiative, which prohibits elected officials from accepting campaign contributions from people after the public official has conferred them a significant financial benefit.
“I’m doing this as a part-time job,” O’Connorsaid in response. “I don’t have $90,000 to give to my campaign. I’m a single woman who works. I’m probably your average Santa Monican. I do the public service on the Metro Board. I find out that over a 10-year-period there were $4,000 worth, an average of $400 a year, of mistakes made and I didn’t have a professional treasurer but now I have a professional treasurer.”
“We will look at the names on the Oaks initiative log to see if these folks are listed,” O’Connor said of the accusations. “Not necessarily all people affiliated with a project are barred from donating.”
In January, The Transparency Project asked O’Connor to recuse herself from the vote on a controversial project put forth by the Texas-based developer Hines.
At the time, they were asking O’Connor not to vote on the project because she’d previously accepted money from Hines executives, arguing that it was unethical.
O’Connor defended herself on the dais, summarizing the Oaks Initiative.
Since January (that Hines project was approved — with a ‘yes’ vote from O’Connor — but later quashed through a referendum), the Transparency Project, led by Mary Marlow, has been digging through O’Connor’s voting record and campaign finance records.
Marlow also serves as an advisor to Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, which has vocally opposed O’Connor and numerous development projects for years.
The Transparency Project found that O’Connor has repeatedly accepted campaign contributions from developer executives after approving their projects.
In 2004, O’Connor voted along with council to approve Hines’ Lantana Media Campus, according to council minutes.
In March of 2008, she accepted a $250 contribution from Jeff Hines of Houston, TX, listed as a real estate professional with Hines, according to her campaign finance statements. Jeff Hines has been the president of the company since at least 1998. Within that same campaign disclosure period, she reported receiving five other $250 contributions from Hines executives.
In 2007, O’Connor voted to approve a substantial remodel of Santa Monica Place, which is owned by Santa Monica-based mall operator Macerich Co.
In 2008 and 2009, she voted to approve facade improvements to parking garages, with the construction set to be done by Macerich. In this case, council’s vote gave the city manager the right to negotiate a $10 million agreement with Macerich, according to meeting minutes.
In October of 2010, she accepted $250 donations from numerous Macerich executives, including the company’s President Edward Coppola, according to campaign disclosure statements.
In June of 2013, O’Connor voted to approve a housing project backed by Century West Partners, according to council minutes.
A month later, O’Connor accepted a $325 contributions from Steven Fifield, listed as a principal at FRC Realty LLC, a Chicago-based company.
According to Century West Partner’s website, the company was formed by Fifield. In this particular campaign disclosure statement, O’Connor is listed as a co-treasurer of her campaign.
Three other FRC executives wrote $325 checks to her campaign, according to the campaign disclosure statement.
O’Connor conceded that perhaps Jeff Hines and Fifield should not have been allowed to contribute “assuming they are equity partners in their firms.”
“Just because someone is an executive employee of a company does not preclude them from contributing,” she said “I rely on the information provided by the City Clerk as to who is precluded — and who is not. We will check that list.”
O’Connor believes that the initiative only covers equity partners because they are the only ones receiving a direct benefit.
“Nobody’s taken it to court yet but then it would mean that every employee is precluded and you’re getting into peoples’ First Amendment rights to contribute to campaign,” O’Connor said.
Earlier this year, a Santa Monica resident was offered a top job in City Hall but the offer was later rescinded because of her past political activism. Elizabeth Riel had contributed to a 2006 campaign that bashed O’Connor as she sought reelection. Riel also published a column in the Daily Press questioning decisions made by city officials. Riel is now suing City Hall, claiming that her First Amendment rights were violated when the job offer was rescinded.
O’Connor told the Daily Press that she “might have commented” to City Manager Rod Gould about Riel but that ultimately it was his decision.
Earlier this week, O’Connor’s most recent campaign disclosure filing shows that she accepted contributions from three Century West Partners executives.
The Daily Press reached out to O’Connor about these particular contributions earlier this week.
“I will check that out,” O’Connor responded. “As I have a paid treasurer I don’t see the checks before they are deposited. If that is the case the funds will be returned.”
O’Connor said she is having a volunteer cross-check contributions.
“The repeated campaign contributions by developers with projects before the City has a corrosive impact on our governing process and residents’ confidence that decisions are being made for their benefit,” said Mary Marlow, Chair of the Transparency Project. “Over the past few years developer money has overwhelmed our elections. Now, it appears that Pam O’Connor has not only violated her ethical responsibilities by taking developer money before she voted on their project, but also Santa Monica law by accepting money after she voted in favor of their project.”
Penalties under city law can be both civil and criminal, according to the Transparency Project statement.
“This is political,” O’Connor said. “They only just look at me. They don’t look at anyone else and mistakes are made occasionally. If it’s $4,000 over 10 years that’s $400 worth of mistakes a year and I would argue that $400 a year is not really going to color the decision by most people and certainly not by me.”
It should be noted that the Daily Press did not scrutinized the campaign disclosure statements nor the voting records of any of the other council members in the same way that the Transparency Project, and subsequently the Daily Press, did of O’Connor’s record. The Daily Press will thoroughly investigate the other records in the coming weeks.