By Royal Calkins
I sat down over the weekend to work on a story about campaign contributions in the Monterey County supervisorial race between Wendy Root Askew and Steve McShane when I was reminded of an unfinished piece about earlier campaign spending and McShane. It was to be a political mystery of sorts, not a thriller but certainly intriguing.
Memory jogged, I’ll finish it now, but I’m afraid it will be a bit of a cliffhanger. The plot won’t resolve quite yet.
It involves McShane and longtime political consultant and alleged serial rapist John Fickas, who sits in the Monterey County jail trying to recover from COVID-19 while awaiting trial on the rape charges. Among other things, he is accused of raping two girls who were among numerous high school students he used as volunteers on local political campaigns. You don’t want to read details of the assault allegations.
The campaigns would pay Fickas to organize groups of students to knock on the doors of potential voters and chat about what a great councilperson/supervisor/hospital trustee so-and-so would be.
Or, there’s a good chance it was not the campaigns that were paying Fickas. Maybeit was someone else, a political action committee perhaps. Who knows? The FBI has been looking into that for more than a year now but no charges have been announced.
Anyway, when it was announced in July 2019 that Fickas had been arrested on the deeply troubling charges, area politicians scrambled to distance themselves. Several politicians, including McShane, quickly returned campaign contributions they had received from Fickas. Others minimized any involvement they had with him.
Fickas and his student volunteers were active in Sheriff Steve Bernal’s campaign of 2018, even while his department was or should have been investigating the rape allegations. Bernal hasn’t had much to say about any of that.
Overlooked by the local press corps at the time, including this little cog in the media wheel, it seems that Fickas had not only contributed to McShane campaigns but had worked for McShane’s successful Salinas City Council campaign in 2018. McShane’s campaign spending reports show that Fickas had been paid $1,600 in four installments between May and November that year.
When I discovered those payments on McShane’s campaign disclosure forms months ago, I asked him what Fickas had done for him.
“I don’t remember Fickas working for us,” McShane said in a voice not nearly as chipper as usual.
I read him what his campaign disclosure forms reflected. He said his memory had not been refreshed.
I suggested he check with his campaign treasurer or others on his campaign staff. Campaigns are supposed to keep records of such things, contracts with consultants, scope of work ledgers, canceled checks, etc. In May, McShane said he would check. He later said he had found a vendor ledger confirming the $1,600 in payments. But, he said, he and others on his campaign staff had no memory of who had hired Fickas or what Fickas had done for the campaign.
Let’s look at that again. McShane acknowledges his campaign paid a well-known political consultant $1,600 but he and his people say they don’t know why.
Here’s a theory, and it’s only a theory. McShane once was closely tied to the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, or SVLG, a political action committee organized by his former father-in-law and business partner Don Chapin, the big-time Salinas Valley contractor.
In recent years, Fickas has been hired to work for numerous candidates supported by the SVLG. Could it be that SVLG paid for Fickas and others to do campaign work without filing legally required disclosure forms? Did SVLG hire Fickas to work on the McShane campaign but forget to pay him? Did someone arrange for Fickas to get paid without actually doing anything?
Rick Giffin, who was running for a school board seat while McShane was running for council, said he saw Fickas at McShane’s office several times during the campaign.
Giffin, who received most of his campaign money from the SVLG, said it was at McShane’s suggestion that he hired Fickas to provide student volunteers for his campaign that year.
I put questions about SVLG’s relationship with Fickas in a message to Chapin in May but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I also emailed and left a message Monday morning for Plasha Fielding Will, the area’s pre-eminent campaign manager who works as a political consultant for SVLG. No response yet.
Again, I’m not saying SVLG did anything wrong, anything illegal. It’s just that there’s plenty of political smoke in the air, what with the FBI poking around and Fickas in custody. Some will remember the Monterey County Weekly’s report last year about how the FBI was asking political types what they knew about how Fickas was carrying loads of cash when he was arrested on the rape charges.
Here’s another theory. Perhaps McShane’s campaign was paying Fickas for work he was doing on other campaigns. It seems like he’d probably remember that, but maybe not.
There you have it. To be continued.
Back to the supervisorial race
Askew and McShane dutifully filed their latest campaign financial disclosure forms last week and neither reflected any campaign involvement by Fickas or anyone else awaiting trial.
McShane did report a $500 contribution from Salinas businessman David Drew, who did time years ago for drug trafficking and later received a pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown. Drew has been a generous contributor to many area campaigns, particularly those involving law enforcement. Associates of Drew also made smallish contributions to McShane.
As expected, McShane has pulled in considerably more money than Askew. The 4th Supervisorial District they seek to represent takes in Seaside and Marina but loops on over to South Salinas. As a result, campaigns in this district tend to be contests between agribusiness and development interests in the Salinas Valley and environmental and social services interests in Seaside and Marina as well as the Monterey Peninsula.
Though McShane has been running to the left in this campaign, a McShane victory would solidify the Salinas Valley’s dominance of the five-member Board of Supervisor while an Askew victory would give Supervisor Mary Adams of Pebble Beach a fighting chance to win an occasional vote on development, land use, social services and water issues.
Though McShane outraised Askew 3-1 in the most recent reporting period, each campaign had less than $70,000 in their treasuries on July 1. That suggests McShane might not be able to mount the aggressive campaign he needs to overcome his relatively weak showing in the May primary. In recent weeks, he has been using a “push poll” to try to undermine Askew, asking voters by phone whether they’d vote for Askew if they knew certain things about her. Such as that she had failed to make a court appearance after receiving a fix-it ticket.
Surprisingly, McShane’s top contributor this time around was not a developer or a grower. It was James Bristol, owner of the Pacific Grove Bottle Shop, who put up $20,000. I called the liquor store to ask why but Bristol was off on a long vacation “deep in the woods.”
McShane got $10,000 from the Associated Builders and Contractors group of Northern California and $7,500 contributions from the Tanimura & Antle produce concern and the Fresno-based developer of Sea Haven housing project in Marina. Among the other contributions from agricultural interests was $6,000 from David Gil of Rio Farms.
Cannabis interests, surprisingly, aren’t terribly interested in this race. The only cannabis-related money McShane reports is $3,500 from Alvarez Bros. of Salinas, which operates a pot plantation in the Salinas Valley, and $1,500 from Peninsula businessman Nader Agha, who owns space for several cultivators in Moss Landing.
(Incidentally, the Monterey County Planning Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on Aug. 12 on a request by Chapin to convert the McShane nursery and landscaping property on Highway 68 into a pot production and processing facility. A similar request was turned down by the county last year.)
A small but interesting McShane contribution, $150, came from Stephen Snodgrass, chief financial officer for the Granite Rock construction operation. He is said to be a likely candidate to replace North County Supervisor John Phillips, who plans to retire next year.
If you’re into progressive Peninsula politics, you’ll likely recognize the names of numerous Askew contributors. Askew is a member of the Monterey Peninsula school board and an aide to District 4 Supervisor Jane Parker. Parker, beloved by League of Women Voter types, is stepping down from the seat. Her support for Askew includes $14,500.
Constance Murray of Carmel Valley chipped in $7,500, the Democratic Women of the Monterey Peninsula contributed $5,000 to the Askew effort, Edwina Bent of Monterey wrote checks totaling $3,000 and the health unit of the Service Employees International Union also gave $3,000.
So, now you know more about the money part of the District 4 race and perhaps you have some questions about Fickas. If our local politicians don’t provide some answers, maybe law enforcement will.
See the latest campaign disclosure statements here:
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned David Drew.
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