Story and photo by Royal Calkins
The state’s political watchdog agency has opened an investigation into a campaign finance complaint that is mainly aimed at Salinas City Council Member Steve McShane but that also alleges that much of the area’s political establishment is in the habit of systematically disguising sources of campaign money.
The complaint by a campaign industry insider accuses McShane of illegally co-mingling staff and other resources between his council campaigns and his current campaign for a seat on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. It accuses him of failing to properly report campaign income and expenditures, including a mysterious $1,600 payment to a political consultant suspected of working “off the books” for several local campaigns. That man, John Fickas, was well-connected in law enforcement and political circles before being arrested last year on rape charges. He has pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial.
The complaint was filed in August by political consultant Christian Schneider, who has launched several investigations by the state Fair Political Practice Commission. That agency, the FPPC, is flooded with complaints during election seasons and chooses to pursue only a small fraction of the potential cases.
The agency notified Schneider by letter this week that it would formally explore his complaint, one of at least a half dozen Schneider complaints that have led to official FPPC inquiries. Schneider is also known to be cooperating with FBI agents investigating connections between the county’s large cannabis industry and the public officials responsible for overseeing it.
Adding a large wrinkle to the situation, Schneider has worked on campaigns with several Monterey County political consultants, several of whom have been involved in campaigns that he has been scrutinizing as part of a one-man campaign to clean up Central Coast politics. He says his motivation was a series of false allegations launched at him two years ago while he was running a campaign meant to unseat Sheriff Steve Bernal. He had previously helped run Bernal’s successful campaign to unseat former Sheriff Scott Miller, Democrat Bill Lipe’s bid for an Assembly seat and former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue’s well-financed but unsuccessful run for the supervisorial seat that McShane is seeking.
McShane is running against Wendy Root Askew in hopes of representing the county’s District 4, which takes in South Salinas, Seaside and Marina. Based on their showings in the spring primary, Askew is widely seen as the favorite.
“I believe there is a culture of donors and consultants working on campaigns but not disclosing the sources of the expenditures by design,” Schneider wrote in his complaint. “It involves all the same individuals over and over again. Fickas has become symbolic of the dangers of this corrupt system and the people who enable it.”
In an interview, Schneider said he has been focusing on contributions made by the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, a particularly influential political action committee formed by contractor Don Chapin, McShane’s former father-in-law.
“I have been following the data by looking at the people SVLG gives massive amounts of money to,” he said. “Each time I have come across huge issues in the campaigns. In my opinion, after so many obvious examples it can’t be a coincidence. Something is wrong.”
Schneider referred to what he sees as “massive coordinated cheating by a certain group of donors. Cheating should be exposed for what it is.”
In previous complaints, some still under official review, Schneider accused the Salinas Valley Leadership Group and various Peninsula-based political action committees of illegally coordinating activities with candidates and helping campaign contributors hide their roles.
A portion of Schneider’s complaint deals with contractor Don Chapin, founder of Salinas Valley Leadership Group. Schneider told the FPPC that Chapin threw a fund-raising event for McShane on Feb. 19 but McShane’s campaign financial reports failed to mention any expenditures or donations related to the event.
“As previously disclosed, Chapin throws extravagant fund-raisers, spending several thousand dollars per event,” Schneider wrote. “ … There have been several such high-end events that don’t appear as expenditures but the corresponding high-dollar checks do appear. I would ask the FPPC to examine all of these events the McShane campaign has participated in and match the corresponding expenditures.”
In his new and previous complaints, Schneider also contends that Salinas City Councilmember and acting Mayor Christie Cromeenes has been involved in a series of unusual campaign contributions in which it appears that a political action committee she runs has been involved in obscuring the sources of campaign contributions. Cromeenes has denied any wrongdoing.
As in the past, Chapin didn’t respond to phone calls from Voices this week. In correspondence with the FPPC, he has firmly denied Schneider’s earlier allegations.
McShane declined to comment Wednesday, saying he was waiting to confirm that the commission had taken up the case. Askew also declined to comment.
Regarding McShane, Schneider’s complaint cites a Voices of Monterey Bay article about how McShane’s 2018 council campaign reported paying Fickas four installments of $400 although McShane says he doesn’t know why the alleged sex offender was paid, what his work entailed or who hired him. When news of Fickas’s arrest broke, McShane had joined several area politicians in quickly announcing that they had returned campaign contributions purportedly made by Fickas.
The complaint brings in another would-be politician, Salinas resident Rick Giffin, who hired Fickas to help him with a 2018 school board race. Schneider says campaign spending reports suggest some $2,000 contributed to Giffin’s campaign was never accounted for properly.
Giffin, who also denies any wrongdoing, was heavily supported by the Salinas Valley Leadership Group. The FPPC’s letter to Schneider said his assertions regarding Giffin would be incorporated into another investigation involving Giffin.
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