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By Royal Calkins
I’ll be as straightforward as I can here to help clear up the confusion that some people, Luis Alejo chief among them, are trying to create regarding FPPC investigations and shenanigans of the type county officials sometimes engage in.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission is still investigating allegations that Monterey County supervisors John Phillips and Chris Lopez received campaign contributions routed to them by local political action committees that illegally coordinated activities with the candidates. An FPPC spokesman confirmed that on Tuesday.
As part of that same ongoing, continuing, incomplete and in-progress investigation, investigators for the FPPC, the state’s official campaign watchdog, are also scrutinizing an allegation that the political action committees (PACs) were essentially laundering campaign contributions to obscure the sources of the money. There are other elements to that investigation, which began a year ago and eventually cast a shadow on Monterey County’s award of a Laguna Seca management contract to local hotelier John Narigi, who appears to be at the center of the inquiry.
I hope you’re with me so far because this is where Supervisor Luis Alejo comes in.
On Tuesday morning, Alejo sent out a tweet proclaiming that the investigation was over. It isn’t. What is over is an unrelated investigation that happens to involve a couple of the same people. It was a relatively minor investigation involving missed deadlines on campaign financial reports filed by Supervisor Phillips and Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal.
This is not the first time Alejo has attempted to trick the electorate into thinking the larger investigation had ended. Why? That isn’t clear. Perhaps the ongoing investigation is making some of his many contributors a little slower to reach for their checkbooks.
Stay with us here.
Alejo’s effort to muddle things began early Tuesday. That’s when the FPPC announced it had completed an investigation that has nothing to do with the one summarized above. It involved an anonymous allegation that accountant Warren Wayland, the treasurer of the most recent campaigns of Phillips and Bernal, had missed the legal deadline for reporting $10,000 contributions to Phillips and Bernal from the Salinas Valley Leadership Group. The Salinas Valley Leadership Group is a PAC formed a decade ago by contractor Don Chapin, a frequent campaign contributor and close associate of Supervisor Phillips.
In the last month of a campaign, candidates are required to report significant contributions within 24 hours so the public knows where the money is coming from. Wayland, who serves as treasurer for many area Republicans, missed the deadline by weeks.
In the completed investigation involving Wayland, the FPPC could have fined him $30,000 but the FPPC staff is recommending a fine of just $4,000 because he had no previous violations. In fact, the FPPC in 2008 fined supervisorial candidate Steve Collins $7,000 because he and treasurer Wayland had reported that Collins had lent $70,000 to his campaign when the money actually had come from Don Chapin and Scheid Vineyards. Collins said at the time that Wayland had paid the fine.
Back to Alejo.
Alejo, whose supervisorial district takes in most of Salinas, makes considerable use of Donald Trump’s favorite medium to trumpet his progressive credentials, celebrate favorite causes and swipe at selected targets. On Tuesday, he used it to tweet out a chunk of fake news.
It went like this:
“So, they (the FPPC) didn’t find any serious wrongdoing that some alleged just a few months ago during the #LagunaSeca Management change vote. Late filings by the hired CPA falls way short of what the accuser was claiming, but people were defamed in the process! It was indeed a smear tactic.”
It’s insider baseball but the intent is clear if you’ve been following the game fairly closely. It was meant to mislead.
The Wayland complaint, the one about missing filing deadlines, was filed in 2018. The unrelated complaint regarding PACs and the supervisors, the complaint Alejo calls a smear, was filed in March 2019. That more recent complaint, filed by campaign consultant Christian Schneider, alleges that Phillips, Supervisor Chris Lopez and Sheriff Bernal had benefited from contributions essentially laundered through a network of political action committees, three of which shared Narigi as an officer. He now runs the Laguna Seca track under contract with the county.
(Wayland is involved with some of the PACS and some of the candidates but Schneider’s complaint had nothing to do with late reporting by him or anyone else.)
At the time of Schneider’s complaint, Narigi was general manager of the Monterey Plaza Hotel. He also was president and treasurer of the Monterey County Business PAC, treasurer of Monterey Bay Action Committee-Candidates, which operates a PAC, and director and president of the Monterey County Hospitality Association, which also operates a PAC. None of those PACs has anything to do with the FPPC investigation Alejo tweeted about. Schneider’s complaint also named Salinas businessman Ricky Cabrera and Salinas Valley Leadership Group founder Chapin, a close associate of Phillips.
(For decades prior, the track had been managed by a local volunteer group, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula. It had fallen deeply into debt and needed significant help from the county in order to complete important repairs and improvements at the track.)
Of everyone potentially implicated in the continuing investigation, only Cabrera and Chapin have responded to questions from Voices. They confirmed they had been questioned by the FPPC but they had nothing to say beyond that. Alejo has not responded to repeated messages from Voices, including one Tuesday and another on Wednesday.
Alejo’s first false tweet about the FPPC came days after the November vote. He said the investigation into Schneider’s complaint was over and he accompanied the verbiage with an image from the unrelated investigation.
Schneider’s complaint to the FPPC raises questions about more than $60,000 in contributions to Phillips and $10,000 to Lopez and additional questions about what could be improper coordination of campaign activities by candidates and political action committees. Alejo is not named in Schneider’s complaint though he did receive a $9,000 contribution from one of the Narigi-associated PACs.
The supervisors, Narigi and others involved had been notified of the Schneider investigation months before the county awarded a new contract to manage Laguna Seca. Even so, county officials did not tell the public or the other supervisors about the investigation before the county awarded the Laguna Seca management contract to Narigi in November.
Unfortunately, there was no publicity about the investigation into Schneider’s complaint until Voices of Monterey Bay wrote about it on the eve of the county vote.
At that time, Alejo declared that the investigation was part of a smear campaign seeking to prevent Narigi from receiving the contract — even though the investigation had begun nine months earlier.
Forgive me if this creates additional material for Alejo to contort, but after the Laguna Seca vote, yet another FPPC complaint was filed, this one by auto racing legend Chris Pook. Pook had unsuccessfully bid on the Laguna Seca contract but later learned that the decision to contract with Narigi had been made well before the supervisors invited Narigi and him to make presentations at a public hearing last November.
Pook founded the Long Beach Grand Prix and developed major racing events in a dozen cities across the country. He once headed one of auto racing’s best known organizations, Championship Auto Racing Teams or CART. Narigi, by contrast, had no racing experience.
In his FPPC complaint, Pook wrote about meetings with the board majority before the vote. He described his session with Phillips:
“. . . Supervisor Phillips informed me that he had requested a good friend of his, who had recently stepped down as the manager of a major Monterey hotel, to form (a track management) company . . . “
“When I inquired as to what was his friend’s experience in motor sports. His answer was ‘None, he’ll figure it out.’”
The status of Pook’s complaint was unknown Wednesday.
After the contract vote, Schneider amended his complaint to say the state should cancel the Laguna Seca contract because of apparent conflicts of interest.
“A public contract was awarded to a company less than a month old with no industry experience or track record (excuse the pun), but whose sole proprietor is the treasurer/donor of several PACs who coordinated possibly unlawful payments/services to the supervisors who were now voting on awarding the contract to him,” Schneider wrote.
“The people who spoke in support of this were the actual donors to the PACs and who also may profit from serving on boards and becoming ‘vendors’ . . . . Such as Don Chapin, for example.”
Schneider has been involved in dozens of campaigns across the country. He helped run Steve Bernal’s successful sheriff’s campaign five years ago and Scott Davis’s unsuccessful campaign against Bernal a year ago. He has filed several complaints with the state watchdog agency over the last year, including one that resulted in pending criminal charges against one-time Assembly candidate Neil Kitchens of Prunedale.
So there you have it. Sorry to make it so long but the investigations into the Schneider and Pook complaints are important and so is the management of Laguna Seca.
Here’s the bottom line.
Investigation into Warren Wayland filing late campaign reports: Over.
Investigation into several PACs connected to John Narigi possibly allegedly coordinating efforts and laundering contributions to Phillips and Lopez: Not over.
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