Officials at California’s political watchdog agency took Elk Grove City Councilman Steven Detrick at his word when he signed a settlement agreement saying he had repaid nearly $100,000 in campaign donations that he had improperly used to defray his son’s legal bills.
The settlement agreement Detrick signed in August with the state Fair Political Practices Commission called for a $3,500 fine and reduced penalties in exchange for Detrick having reimbursed his campaign account from personal funds.
Months later, the FPPC discovered the councilman had never repaid the money. The agency says it erred in not verifying the reimbursement took place, and that it may have little recourse now to force Detrick to replenish his campaign account.
“We learned it had not been repaid as he declared,” FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said last week. “The legal division is now looking at what potential options can be done.”
Wierenga said the councilman’s decision not to comply with the settlement terms was unusual. Detrick’s most recent campaign finance records through the end of 2014 show no reimbursement.
Detrick, who was first elected to the council in 2008, was traveling last week and said he was unavailable for comment. Janice Detrick, his wife and treasurer for his campaign account, declined to answer questions when reached by phone Friday.
In general, the FPPC verifies whether money has been repaid to a campaign committee before it approves a settlement. But in this case, that verification never occurred, Wierenga said, adding that the commission since has put in place procedures to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
At issue is the $93,500 Detrick paid to Sacramento law firm Boutin Jones between July 2013 and July 2014 for attorneys’ fees incurred by his son, Brian Detrick, an Elk Grove event planner who was embroiled in a dispute with local activist Constance Conley. Brian Detrick sued Conley for libel in 2013 over her claims that he had failed to register with the state attorney general’s office as a commercial fundraiser.
According to the FPPC’s proposed settlement, officials said Steven Detrick “mistakenly believed” he could pay his son’s legal bills because he considered Conley a political rival and that her statements “were motivated by her personal and political rivalry” with the Elk Grove councilman.
Steven Detrick’s attorney in the FPPC settlement, Steven Churchwell, did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Conley and Brian Detrick eventually settled. Conley declined to discuss Steven Detrick’s run-in with the FPPC, citing the terms of her settlement.
The case underscores a loophole in campaign finance law that does not require reimbursement when a politician uses campaign funds for personal expenses, according to Bob Stern, a former FPPC general counsel and veteran government watchdog who helped craft the state’s Political Reform Act. The commission typically compels elected officials and candidates to repay their accounts through negotiated settlements and fines.
“I don’t think there’s anything they can do about it,” Stern said. “They’ve already fined the guy. They can’t go back and fine him again.”
He added, “The bottom line is reimbursement should be part of the law, part of any enforcement action.”
Stern said it was surprising for a politician to act in flagrant disregard of the FPPC. “If I were at the commission, I would be very upset. It’s embarrassing,” he said. “I would be exploring all ways for enforcement, including going to court.”
In a letter to Detrick’s attorney last week, the FPPC’s acting enforcement chief suggested that the enforcement division should have verified the financial transfer when the settlement was inked and would not seek repayment.
“It was a mistake by Mr. Detrick and the Enforcement Division to sign the stipulation with the statement in the exhibit that Mr. Detrick had reimbursed his committee when he had not,” wrote Galena West, the acting enforcement chief. “Because of this error, and the fact that the law does not require reimbursement of the money, the Enforcement Division will not pursue reimbursement from Mr. Detrick and will close this matter.”
Wierenga emphasized that the case had been closed from an enforcement perspective but said the legal division was examining separately whether the agency has recourse to force Detrick to comply with the settlement. Asked whether the stipulation he signed was under penalty of perjury, Wierenga said, “It’s all stuff that’s being looked at.”
The $3,500 settlement with the FPPC marked Detrick’s second violation of 2014. He also was fined $1,500 for using $425 in campaign funds for a one-night Sonoma hotel stay and wine-tasting event at a charity auction for Teen Center USA Elk Grove.
Detrick won re-election in 2012 after running unopposed for his District 3 seat.
He built a sizable war chest heading into that election, raising $166,000 in 2011 and 2012, according to campaign finance records. His biggest donors included developer and former oil executive Gil Moore, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 447, developer Vintara Holdings and city transit operator MV Transportation. His son’s legal bills were by far his largest campaign expenditure to a single party in the last four years.
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.
Campaign dollars used for personal expenses
1994: State Sen. Charles Calderon is fined for spending campaign dollars on an outfit for a celebrity tennis tournament, modeling photographs for his wife and an entertainer for his son’s birthday party.
1996: State Sen. Richard Polanco is fined for using campaign funds to pay for annual membership fees at Capital Athletic Club.
2008: Former state Sen. Carole Migden agrees to a record $350,000 fine for campaign spending violations, some of which involved personal expenses. Though the expenditures were not disclosed, records showed campaign credit card charges at Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Tiffany & Co., among other high-end retailers.
2013: Former state senator and state controller candidate Dean Florez is fined for spending $26,541 in campaign funds on personal items, ranging from concert tickets to purchases at Ikea, Best Buy and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
2014: Elk Grove City Councilman Steve Detrick is fined $1,500 for spending $425 in campaign funds on a “Sonoma Getaway” package at a charity auction. Later the same year, he agrees to pay $3,500 to settle an FPPC investigation into spending $93,500 in campaign money on his son’s legal bills.
Source: Bee research