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Gotta Sweat the Little Stuff: Valley Councilwoman in Hot Water Over $5 and $10 Donations

THIS IS WHAT I KNOW--A Los Angeles neighborhood grassroots matching funds program may have opened the door to a second candidate landing in hot water. LA City Council Member Nury Martinez is under Federal investigation in connection with her 2015 reelection efforts.

The focus is not on large contributions but on multiple $5 to $10 donations. At least five constituents from Martinez’s district, which encompasses Panorama City, Lake Balboa, and Van Nuys, have been contacted by the FBI and appeared before a Grand Jury. Federal law enforcement agencies are granted authority to investigate any suspected fraud of over $5,000 in cities that receive federal matching funds. 

Martinez received $65,360 in public matching funds, which represents close to 20% of her campaign coffers, from the program that aimed to bring in contributions from their local constituencies instead of donations from outside the district or city. Once a candidate received 200 valid donations from district residents, along with some other requirements, he or she would be eligible for matching funds by as much as a 2:1 ratio. For every dollar that came in from local constituents, the candidate would receive up to $2 in matching funds. 

What’s the potential problem? The validity of the 200 or so contributions to Martinez might be an issue. The candidate just met the threshold with 220 reported contributions and investigators found residents who either denied donating or had not given permission to someone else to donate on their behalf, which is against the Los Angeles City Charter, treated as a misdemeanor, and subject to a $5,000 financial penalty for each occurrence. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, Martinez field deputy Caesar Huerta and at least five other staffers were soliciting contributions from friends and family. Huerta and at least eight of Huerta’s family members have been questioned by FBI agents, called to appear before a Grand Jury, or both.

It’s not unusual for an incumbent’s staffers to volunteer toward the re-election effort, which generally falls within ethics guidelines. However, the volunteering can’t be done during regular work hours. 

Therein lies the additional problem. If Martinez staffers were using government resources including work time, computers, or other taxpayer- paid equipment for campaign efforts, more trouble may be brewing. Additionally, campaign violations were committed by the councilwoman’s professional staff appear even worse, according to attorney Gary Winuk, who formerly handled enforcement for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. 

Were these alleged violations intentional? California Common Cause top executive Kathay Feng believes some of Martinez’s contributors may fear donations might bring them trouble with federal authorities, a commonly held misbelief in areas with substantial immigrant populations. She says she “feels like there may have been inadvertent mistakes because of an inexperienced and relatively excited group” of entry level staffers and donors. 

Still, election and campaign finance laws are pretty serious business. Most politicians and candidates wish to avoid even a sense of impropriety. While the $5 or $10 donations, which might include cash donations, might seem to be inconsequential, every “i” must be dotted and every “t” crossed. 

Martinez isn’t the first candidate to have been investigated in the drive to obtain 200 district donations. Last May, Robert Cole, who received over $61,000 in taxpayer matching funds during his failed bid to replace Councilman Bernard C. Parks in South L.A., was fined $90,000 when the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission accused Cole of filing multiple contributions from constituents who were deceased.

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)

-cw