Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson listens to councilmen Steve Hanson as the big box store topic is discussed on Tuesday night, August 20, 2013 at the Sacramento City Council meeting.

FPPC will investigate allegations that Sacramento mayor had a conflict of interest in big box vote

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013 - 9:15 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013 - 11:53 am

The state's political watchdog has launched a formal investigation into an allegation that Mayor Kevin Johnson had a conflict of interest in the City Council's recent vote to ease restrictions on big-box superstores.

Eric Sunderland, a Sacramento Municipal Utility District employee and former city school board candidate active in local Democratic Party politics, filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission last month charging that Johnson had a conflict because he has solicited thousands of dollars in donations from Wal-Mart. Those donations, known as behests, went to nonprofits either controlled by Johnson or supported by the mayor.

Sunderland's complaint also alleged that Johnson had a financial interest in the big-box vote - which could lead to Wal-Mart opening a store in the city - because the Walton Family Foundation has committed $8 million to StudentsFirst, the education reform foundation run by Johnson's wife, Michelle Rhee.

The complaint also alleged that Johnson may have accepted gifts in excess of the limits set by state election code because Stand Up, an education advocacy organization he founded, funded travel for the mayor. Stand Up received $500,000 in donations from the Walton Family Foundation since 2011, according to the foundation's website.

The FPPC has notified Sunderland and Johnson that it is investigating the claims.

Wal-Mart and the Walton Family Foundation - which is not directly affiliated with the retail chain but is funded by the company's founding family - have donated nearly $800,000 to nonprofits and charities on behalf of the mayor and City Council since 2009.

A vast majority of those donations were solicited by Johnson and went to education initiatives that he either founded or has promoted.

Johnson's staff members have said there is no connection between the behests and the mayor's views on the big-box ordinance. Johnson, considered to be pro-business, supported easing restrictions on the stores.

"The mayor is fully cooperating and confident that the FPPC will find no conflict," Johnson spokesman Ben Sosenko said Tuesday.

Wal-Mart representatives have said they did not seek to influence Johnson and council members with the donations and that the company has no immediate plans to open a new store in Sacramento.

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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