Campaign consultant and pot stirrer Christian Schneider and his dog, Crooked | Photo by Royal Calkins
By Royal Calkins
Among the list of most influential Monterey County political figures is one name that most voters have never heard. Christian Schneider.
Unlike the others on the roster — political luminaries such as Congressman Jimmy Panetta, county supervisors John Phillips and Luis Alejo and Carmel Mayor Dave Potter — Schneider is not a public official. He’s a campaign consultant who has never run for office. His influence comes from his deep knowledge of election law as well as the machinery of campaign finance. That and his eagerness to share his findings with anyone who will listen.
Over the past year, his research has revealed an apparent pattern of campaign law violations throughout Monterey County and an unwillingness by local authorities to take action, helping to sustain a political system that seems intent on keeping pro-business politicos in power. Schneider points out that in a county with a decidedly Democratic edge in voter registration, Republicans generally do well in local races, which he ascribes to campaign machinations rather than any philosophical quirk within the electorate.
Schneider has filed a series of complaints with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission and other agencies, including one set that could unravel Monterey County’s contract with the extremely well-connected company that is now running county-owned Laguna Seca Raceway. That FPPC filing could lead to fines against business-oriented political action committees on the Peninsula and in the Salinas Valley. Theoretically, it could cause the raceway contract to be undone.
The objects of Schneider’s attention dismiss him as a disgruntled firebrand but they also pay close attention to what he’s doing.
One of Schneider’s FPPC complaints led to the current prosecution of unsuccessful GOP Assembly candidate Neil Kitchens of Salinas for voter fraud. He has also sent the FPPC documentation of single campaign contributions moving through more than one campaign.
Schneider first popped up in the county in 2014 when he helped Steve Bernal, then a lowly sheriff’s deputy, upset incumbent Scott Miller. (Schneider replaced GOP operative Brandon Gesicki as Bernal’s campaign manager after Gesicki launched a brutal attack portraying Miller as soft on drug crimes.)
Demonstrating a contrarian approach to politics, Schneider four years later helped run an unsuccessful campaign against Bernal — a campaign that lives on in the courts and the FPPC’s investigative division.
As an outgrowth of that 2018 race, the FBI has been investigating yet another set of Schneider allegations involving possible civil rights violations by Bernal and other members of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. Schneider is also locked in litigation against the county and the Sheriff’s Office — litigation in which the county is paying the legal fees for Sheriff’s Office employees who made groundless attacks on Schneider and others in support of Bernal’s campaign. In his view, the campaign should be paying the lawyers.
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Rather than move on to new campaigns elsewhere following the 2018 sheriff’s race, Schneider stuck around the Central Coast and began what has become a mission. Not necessarily in this order, he is attempting to reform what he sees as a corrupt political establishment in Monterey County while undoing the unfair publicity he received during the 2018 sheriff’s campaign.
Unfortunately for some current officeholders, Schneider has been poring over campaign finance reports in search of irregularities such as campaigns benefiting from unreported campaign cash, some of it from the cannabis industry.
Schneider says much of the political shenanigans he has uncovered is the result of a good-old-boy network of long standing, a coordinated effort by certain Republican operatives to use underhanded means to offset the Democratic majority and a local press corps unwilling or unable to dig below the surface.
“The media have to take some responsibility in educating themselves and not relying on dubious sources to educate them,” he said in typically blunt fashion. “I have shown through my complaints that the issues run deep right under the noses of the media and they had no clue. They still haven’t put it together.”
Referring to the tactics used by the Bernal camp during his 2018 re-election campaign against Salinas City Councilman and sheriff’s deputy Scott Davis, Schneider went on: “The media need to take a step back and admit they screwed up or were taken advantage of and set the story straight. Not just for me or Scott or (Deputy Sheriff Association President) Dan Mitchell but for the public at large.
“If you just become a mouthpiece, then you run the risk of looking like you were in on it and if you aren’t, well, then they are just laughing at how they played you.”
One prominent politico who asked not to be named called him “a real pain in the butt and I hope he doesn’t take that as a compliment.”
Schneider, 46, is a perplexing figure. After a difficult childhood in New Jersey, he attended the University of Massachusetts at Boston, supporting himself in part by playing chess in Harvard Square and high-stakes poker wherever he could find a game. In his teens, he was a theater prodigy, eventually attending a master’s program in theater at Harvard.
As a young man, he left one stage for another. His earliest political work was on the East Coast, where he helped run city council campaigns, a New York City mayoral contest and a statewide voter initiative on behalf of a public employees union.
Later he headed to Southern California, where he helped run congressional campaigns for Democratic candidates and ballot measure campaigns for educational organizations and others.
In 2010, he ran a California-wide campaign to restore LGBT marriage rights and became involved in other progressive endeavors.
Schneider has a deep voice and he’s not shy about using it to argue with reporters or anyone else who doesn’t see things his way. He can be diplomatic, but he isn’t always. He is also well read and therefore able to interject fairly fancy literary, political or historical references into the debate. He is equally able to keep the discussion going well after his point has been made. He says he sees tenacity as one of his strengths but also a weakness.
“I have been told I don’t know when to quit,” he said in one of several interviews with Voices.
In addition to his work for and against Bernal, he has been a consultant in several local campaigns, including former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue’s unsuccessful run for county supervisor, and Salinas Democrat Bill Lipe’s unsuccessful run for Assembly.
Schneider says he tries to limit his clients to progressive candidates and causes, but it hasn’t always worked out. When he first came to Monterey County it was to work for the decidedly conservative Bernal, who succeeded in unseating his boss, Scott Miller, a favorite of progressives. Though he was not responsible for Bernal’s successful effort to portray Miller as soft on crime, especially drug crime, he ran head-on into controversy quickly.
That was when Bernal received the endorsement of United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta. Several political figures and the local press corps reflexively alleged that Bernal or Schneider must have lied to Huerta to get her to endorse a Republican who was receiving heavy support from anti-union agriculture interests.
What didn’t come out then was that Schneider had gotten to know Huerta while working on progressive campaigns, including one for the Democratic Party in North Carolina. During the local uproar about the endorsement, Huerta eventually said she felt she had been misled by Schneider. His protestations seemed to make no dents in anyone’s thinking.
Being accused of tricking Huerta, whom he admires, “was a painful thing,” Schneider said recently. “I merely told Dolores about the rates of incarceration for Latinos in Monterey County and about things that Bernal wanted to do about it. I never tried to trick her.”
Huerta later said she had mistakenly believed Bernal was Latino.
Since Davis’s loss to Bernal in 2018, Schneider has filed a series of complaints with the Sheriff’s Office, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission. For the most part, the Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s Office have ignored him but the FPPC has taken his research seriously and so apparently has the FBI. Agents out of the bureau’s Oakland office came to Monterey County last year partly to investigate Schneider’s contention that his civil rights and the rights of others involved in the Davis campaign were violated when three sheriff’s commanders — supporting Bernal and acting under the color of authority — falsely accused them of crimes, according to Schneider and others interviewed by the FBI
At the same time, the FBI is investigating suspicions that cash from Central Coast marijuana operations has been funneled into local political campaigns, mostly in the form of payments to political operatives whose work is not documented in official campaign finance reports. The FBI is also known to be investigating the cannabis industry’s buddy-buddy relationship with political figures in Sacramento, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
While those lines of inquiry would seem to be unrelated, Schneider said they dovetail with the FPPC investigation of alleged campaign money laundering and illegal coordination of campaign activities by candidates and political action committees in Monterey County. One big conspiracy? No. Bad actors working in concert when it suits them? Maybe so.
In Schneider’s view, illegal coordination of campaign activities by political action committees and candidates has been going on so long and openly in Monterey County that the participants don’t give it a thought. In one of his FPPC complaints, he cites a Monterey County Hospitality Association membership solicitation that openly touts how the association’s political action committee can be used as a way to contribute to specific candidates without anyone knowing.
What comes next here is information that has been reported before but in disconnected fashion.
Let’s go back to the FBI. Monterey County Weekly reporter Mary Duan broke the news last year that the FBI had questioned another campaign manager about reports of cash possibly floating between local campaigns. Cash is a campaign no-no because it can’t be traced. The campaign manager turned out to be GOP stalwart Brian Higgins, who said the FBI wanted to know about large amounts of cash carried around by campaign consultant John Fickas of Salinas. Higgins has often worked with Fickas, primarily using him to provide teenagers to walk precincts for the candidate.
Twice, Fickas provided workers for Bernal’s campaigns. Fickas is currently awaiting trial on charges that he committed a series of rapes over a period of several years. In two of the criminal cases against Fickas, the alleged victims were high school girls who had volunteered for campaign work under his direction.
Fickas met and recruited girls while working as a volunteer field hockey coach at his alma mater, North Salinas High School, where his wife has been a teacher. According to numerous sources, he would regularly take a single girl to campaign social events attended by local political and law enforcement figures. One of the alleged rapes occurred after he took a 16-year-old girl first to a political event at a North Salinas nightspot in 2015 and then to the home of former Salinas City Councilman Sergio Sanchez, where he allegedly raped her in a bathroom.
One of Fickas’s alleged rapes from several years ago was first reported to the Sheriff’s Office but it wasn’t investigated vigorously until the Salinas Police Department began an investigation into the 2015 alleged assault by Fickas.
Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Bryan Hoskins said investigators suspect Fickas committed several other rapes during his travels in connection with his hobby of breeding and showing exotic rabbits. (He was arrested on the rape charges when he appeared in court to answer charges of cruelty to rabbits.)
“In politics the word corruption is tossed around so often by both sides it has lost meaning. But it causes harm in a community, it fosters inequalities." Christian Schneider
Here’s where a couple lines of inquiry seem to converge. Much of Fickas’s political work was for candidates supported and financed by the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, a creation of contractor Don Chapin, a close associate of Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips. The Salinas Valley Leadership Group has been one of the main focuses of Schneider and his complaints to the FPPC.
Schneider’s research shows that among the chief beneficiaries of SVLG contributions over the past three years have been supervisors Phillips, and Lopez, Bernal, Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, Salinas City Council members Steve McShane and Christie Cromeenes, unsuccessful Marina mayoral candidate Bob Nolan and hospital board candidate Ricky Cabrera. In his FPPC filings, Schneider documents what appears to be a pattern of contributions making their way between some of those campaigns.
Following his arrest on the rape allegations last year, several area politicians were quick to return campaign contributions from Fickas. Among them was McShane, currently running for the Board of Supervisors. He said at the time that he had returned two small contributions from Fickas. More recently, however, McShane was unable to explain a campaign financial report indicating that his campaign had paid Fickas $1,600 for consulting work on McShane’s 2018 re-election bid in Salinas.
McShane told Voices he had no recollection of Fickas working for his campaign, no idea what he did and no idea who had hired him. While campaign organizations generally maintain consulting contracts that spell out services to the campaign, McShane said his campaign treasurer couldn’t find any such records.
Schneider says he suspects Fickas has done work off the books for area campaigns and that he may have been paid under the table by sources unknown. He says the FBI has charted those activities.
In his complaints to the state, Schneider alleges that the Salinas Valley Leadership Group is so closely tied to North County Supervisor Phillips’s campaigns as to be an alter ego. Among the connections he cites is their use of the same accountant, Warren Wayland, and the same political consultant, Plasha Will.
Back to marijuana briefly. Will is also a business partner with Carmel Mayor Dave Potter, a former county supervisor, in a cannabis consulting service that, among other things, helps marijuana operations obtain county permits.
Also among those known to have been questioned by the FBI is Peninsula investor Nader Agha. He owns an industrial property in Moss Landing that houses several licensed marijuana gardens. According to Agha, the agents were mostly interested in the owners of a large pot operation, Grupo Flor, which previously occupied most of his space, and about campaign contributions made by one of the Grupo Flor principals, Mike Bitar. Bitar has been a strong supporter of Gunter, the Salinas mayor, whose son was recently employed by Grupo Flor. When asked how that came to be, Gunter simply replied, “He needed a job.”
Incidentally or not, the Wills-Potter marijuana consulting partnership has long represented Grupo Flor and other marijuana businesses operating on Agha’s property. At one point, according to Agha, while Grupo Flor was the leasing agent for his property, the firm required each tenant to hire the Potter-Will team as consultants. (Grupo Flor and Agha have been involved in protracted litigation.)
Schneider says he suspects that cash from various marijuana operations has been routed to the various campaigns through a network of consultants, possibly including Potter. Potter, a former Monterey County supervisor, calls the assertion “ridiculous.”
“Why would I want to do something like that?” Potter said during an interview in which he mentioned his own history of run-ins with the FPPC. He said Will also denies any knowledge of cash being moved around and he added that he doesn’t know Fickas.
The Schneider FPPC complaint that has received the most attention came last spring. Schneider alleged that campaign contributions were essentially being laundered through the Salinas Valley Leadership Group and the Monterey County Hospitality Association’s political action commission.
That complaint was filed in March 2019 but received no public attention until October, when Voices wrote about it as it became germane to Monterey County’s award of a new contract for management of Laguna Seca Raceway. The well-known track along Highway 168 east of Monterey had long been managed by the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula but the county supervisors were poised to grant a new contract to longtime hotel manager John Narigi, a close associate of Phillips.
Schneider’s complaint raised still outstanding questions about $60,000 in campaign contributions received by Phillips and $10,000 in contributions to Supervisor Chris Lopez.
Phillips led the successful effort to award the contract to his friend without publicly disclosing the existence of the FPPC investigation. Phillips failed to respond to a request for comment.
Among other things, the complaint questions the legality of solicitations sent out by the Monterey County Hospitality Association while Narigi was an officer of the group and related entities. Schneider’s complaint also alleges that the hospitality association was paying for campaign polling in coordination with candidates, which is also prohibited under state and federal laws.
Named in the complaint in addition to the supervisors, Narigi and the hospitality association were the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, Monterey Bay Action Committee-Candidates, Monterey County Business Political Action Committee, Salinas Valley Leadership Group founder Don Chapin and Cabrera, a business associate of Chapin.
The investigation remains active, a state spokesman said last week. Most of the people named in Schneider’s complaints have declined to comment. Chapin acknowledged the existence of the investigation but denied any wrongdoing. Cabrera confirmed that he had been questioned by the FPPC.
In October, the Board of Supervisors formally listened to proposals from Narigi, the sports car association and another bidder, Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix, but the decision to go with Narigi had been reached weeks earlier. Pook later filed an FPPC complaint of his own, alleging that the fix was in.
Narigi was general manager of the Monterey Plaza Hotel for three decades and was heavily involved in Peninsula business and marketing organizations. For several years, he served on the board of Rancho Cielo, a nonprofit founded by Phillips that provides culinary training and other services for at-risk youth. Also on that board are Cabrera and Chapin, whose Salinas Valley Leadership Group was formed to support business-friendly political candidates.
In his letter to the FPPC, Schneider argues that he had uncovered what appear to be “predicate issues of coordination, undisclosed expenditures, earmarked donations, co-mingling of resources, (prohibited) communications and possible campaign money laundering contrary to transparency laws on campaign finance.”
Schneider supplied the FPPC with some evidence of campaign violations and suggested several other areas for potential investigation. He said he was providing the FPPC with a “road map.”
In an interview at the time, Schneider said, “In politics the word corruption is tossed around so often by both sides it has lost meaning. But it causes harm in a community, it fosters inequalities. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. It is an issue of blatant power grabs and greed by a small group of individuals who feel their needs are more important than everyone else’s.”
This article initially reported that Schneider had done campaign work for U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta. He did not.
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