By Daniel Larios
October 9, 2014 – Mayor Pam O’Connor was accused by the Santa Monica Transparency Project on Wednesday of accepting campaign contributions from developers in violation of the City’s anti-corruption statute.
The watchdog group, headed by slow-growth activist Mary Marlow, filed a complaint with the City Attorney’s Office against O’Connor for allegedly violating the Oaks Initiative statute 24 times since 2004, totaling some $4,000.
“The repeated campaign contributions by developers with projects before the City has a corrosive impact on our governing process and residents’ confidence that decisions are being made for their benefit,” said Marlow. “Over the past few years developer money has overwhelmed our elections.”
The law, approved by Santa Monica voters in 2000, “prohibits a public official from receiving specified personal benefits from a person or entity after the official votes, or otherwise takes official action, to award a ‘public benefit’ to that person or entity.”
Examples of a “public benefit” include public contracts to provide goods or services worth more than $25,000 or a land use approval worth more than $25,000.
“Now, it appears that Pam O’Connor has not only violated her ethical responsibilities by taking developer money before she voted on their project, but also Santa Monica law by accepting money after she voted in favor of their project,” Marlow added. “We’ve got to put a stop to this now.”
O’Connor said she is checking if her contributors are included on a list maintained by the City Attorney’s office of those prohibited from giving campaign contributions to City Council incumbents running for re-election.
“We will look at the names on the Oaks initiative log to see if these folks are listed,” O’Connor said “Not necessarily all people affiliated with a project are barred from donating.”
O’Connor questioned the group’s interpretation of the law, saying she believes the statute only covers individuals who directly benefit from City money, not necessarily those employed by a company that benefits.
“Nobody’s taken it to court yet but then it would mean that every employee is precluded, and you’re getting into peoples’ First Amendment rights to contribute to campaigns,” O’Connor said.
According to the complaint, the Transparency Project alleges that O’Connor has accepted campaign contributions from executives from Hines, Macerich and Century West after approving their development projects.
In 2004, O’Connor voted to approve Hines Development’s Lantana Media Campus. In March of 2008, President of Hines Development Jeff Hines contributed $250 to her campaign, according to campaign finance statements.
She also reportedly received other $250 contributions from Hines executives, including from Jim Buie, the West Region CEO, and Senior Vice Presidents Colin Shepherd, Doug Holte and Paul Paradis.
In 2007, O’Connor voted to approve renovations on Santa Monica Place, which is owned by Santa Monica-based Macerich Company, and in 2008 and 2009 voted to approve facade improvements to City –owned parking garages, with the construction set to be done by Macerich.
In October of 2010, she accepted $250 donations from Macerich executives, including the company’s President Edward Coppola; Executive Vice President Randy Brant, Board of Directors member Dana Anderson and Senior Vice President Kenneth Gillett, according to the complaint.
In June of 2013, O’Connor voted to approve a housing project backed by Century West Partners.
A month later, O’Connor accepted a $325 contribution from Steven Fifield, listed as a principal at FRC Realty LLC. According to Century West Partner’s website, the company was formed by Fifield.
The complaint also names managing director Randy Fifield, Vice President Kevin Farrell and founder Michael Sorochinsky as individuals who contributed to O’Connor’s reelection campaign.
Penalties under Santa Monica law can be both civil and criminal, and can include an order for O’Connor to stop taking prohibited donations and pay fines totaling five times the illegal contributions, according to the Transparency Project. Based on the group’s allegations, that would amount to more than $22,000.
Marlow is listed as an “advisor” on the website for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a slow-growth group that has attacked O’Connor in past elections for her support of development projects.
There have been at least two other council members who have been affected by the Oaks Initiative statutes, both during the 2006 election.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown returned a $250 donation from Pier Board President Ellen Brennan because it violated the initiative, since the Pier receives City money. (O'Connor Targeted by Coalition; Hit Piece Exposes Rift Within SMRR, October 30, 2006)
On October 25, 2006, Councilmember Bob Holbrook was charged by Election Watchdog after his campaign received a donation of $250 from the Bayside Hotel on Ocean Avenue. He later returned the contribution. (Council Incumbents Work to Abide by Letter of the Law, October 26, 2006)