What exactly is the purpose of the self-styled Transparency Project here in Santa Monica? This “organization” — though it seems to be an organization of one — claims to shine light on possibly unethical or illegal activity in our local politics. A noble and necessary function. This weekend, this organization chose, in this newspaper, to highlight legal and properly-reported donations by some local attorneys — and their families. This information is, of course, easily accessible and publicly available because we have strong campaign finance reporting laws, a sign of a healthy local democratic culture.
However, as the Transparency Project busied itself with this relatively easy task, a new, shadowy organization — Santa Monicans Against the Miramar Expansion — sent out a misleading flyer with an unambiguously anti-Semitic caricature of Michael Dell (partial owner of the Miramar Hotel). We know nothing of where this organization is getting its money nor do we know who has organized it. I’m curious why the Transparency Project hasn’t done any work to seek answers to these questions about what appears to be a well-funded operation with a clear agenda. Or even, at the very least, point out how untransparent this new organization is and call for them to identify themselves.
On top of that, last week, the alumni newsletter for Samohi — where I graduated from in 2003 — was hijacked by ads for several candidates for City Council, one of whom, remarkably, is the president of the Samohi Alumni Association.
The Alumni Association is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and is barred from supporting candidates. The IRS webpage says that “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure of the legal propriety of this, but shouldn’t this be an issue for the Transparency Project to take on in order to assure the community that electioneering in this city is being done in a fair and proper manner by all candidates? The address listed on the Samohi Alumni Association’s website is the same as that of Samohi, which makes it look as if it is just another school booster club (which, of course, would not be able to support candidates nor would it seek out political campaign ads). This misuse or abuse of its 501(c)3 status has certainly soured me on the leadership of the Santa Monica High School Alumni Association and I won’t be joining while the organization’s current leadership remains in charge. But for the Transparency Project’s purposes, why wouldn’t this be of concern for other reasons?
The Transparency Project also managed to miss the biggest actual act of illegal electioneering in Santa Monica’s recent political history, when the Huntley Hotel, in its quest to quash the Miramar’s redevelopment plan, was hit with a $300,000 fine — the largest fine in FPPC history — for laundering campaign money during the 2012 and 2014 elections in support of candidates they hoped would oppose the project. The Transparency Project had said exactly nothing about this and it only came to light several years later, once the FPPC had completed its investigation.
The Transparency Project has a clear pattern of attacking — sometimes unwarrantedly — people who it perceives as opposing its political agenda while giving egregious passes to those who are aligned with the Project’s anti-housing, anti-jobs, and anti-change agenda. That’s not transparency; that’s politicking plain and simple.
Transparency in our local politics is absolutely necessary and it’s why we require such clear and accessible campaign finance reporting for candidates and political action committees. Hijacking the cause of transparency and using it only when it suits you, while giving passes to people and organizations that share your political agenda, actually erodes faith in truth and actual transparency and, frankly, smacks of the cynical hypocrisy on full display in D.C. these days.