The Public Eye

Sacramento County supervisor’s ethics case remains unresolved 2 years later

Susan Peters
Susan Peters Scott Lorenzo

The state’s political watchdog has yet to resolve a nearly 2-year-old investigation examining whether Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters violated ethics rules by voting on Mather projects near property she owns.

In July 2014, the Fair Political Practices Commission started looking at Peters’ votes on projects at the former Mather Air Force Base, where she owns land and office space. The probe came after The Sacramento Bee reported that Peters cast votes for at least 51 airport-related items over nine years, including millions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements.

Under the regulation in place then, a public official was considered to have a conflict of interest if she voted on a project within 500 feet of property she owned and could receive any financial benefit from the outcome.

Commission spokesman Jay Wierenga said confidentiality rules prohibit him from talking about the case in detail. He released a statement saying “the Enforcement Division is working to resolve the case with Ms. Peters and her counsel. They anticipate reaching a mutual resolution, and if that doesn’t occur in the immediate future, FPPC staff will start the process for a contested administrative hearing by May 31st.” A settlement or a hearing decision would have to be approved by the five-member commission.

FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke said the commission settles the vast majority of its cases because it doesn’t have the resources to hold hearings routinely.

Peters and her attorney, Chuck Bell Jr., did not return messages seeking comment on the case. Peters has previously said she did nothing wrong by voting on Mather projects and received opinions from county counsel supporting her position. She has since abstained from voting on Mather projects.

Peters is seeking a fourth, four-year term on the Board of Supervisors in the June 7 primary election. She has a significant advantage in name recognition and fundraising over her challenger, Shaun Dillon, a merchandising supervisor at Home Depot who has not held elected office.

Dillon said the county should start its own ethics commission.

“This case should have been resolved by now,” he said. “The county needs something in place of its own, with investigative power, to prevent issues like this.”

Mather closed for military use in 1993, and the county eventually converted the 5,715-acre property into a complex that includes a commercial airport, business park and golf course. Peters has a financial stake in 17 acres of land and two large office buildings across the street from Mather Airport on Peter A. McCuen Boulevard.

The boulevard is named after her now-deceased husband, who was picked by the county to convert the military base to civilian use. Peters helped direct the redevelopment effort.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, one of her tenants, chose to locate at Mather in part because of the airport, which it uses to fly to disasters across the state. Peters’ property firm uses the airport’s “superior facilities” as a selling point in promoting the land to potential buyers.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and expert on state ethics laws, reviewed some of Peters votes two years ago and concluded she broke conflict-of-interest laws.

“The case is languishing and that limits the public’s ability to know what’s going on,” Levinson said. “For the public, it is more useful to know where exactly these charges stand before the election.”

The most vocal criticism has come from residents near Mather who are upset about noise from its cargo flights and are opposed to the airport expansion that Peters supports. One of those critics, John Kerhlikar, said he believes Peters would have attracted a more experienced election opponent if the commission had found her in violation of ethics laws.

“It’s ridiculous. It was obvious a long time ago that what she did was wrong,” he said. “There should have been a decision a long time ago.”

Peters hired a political law expert to defend her in the FPPC case. Bell has represented clients before the commission for four decades and is “one of the leading experts on the California Political Reform Act,” the law governing the commission’s actions, according to his firm’s website.

Peters’ re-election campaign has paid Bell’s law firm more than $15,000 since he started representing her in 2014, according to records filed with the county elections office.

Bell has been very active in the state Republican Party, serving as its general counsel and as a treasurer in campaigns. His work as a treasurer at times has placed him at odds with the commission, which has found him in violation of campaign laws four times since 1991, commission records show.

Most recently in August 2015, the FPPC determined that Bell, state Sen. Jim Nielsen and several other parties had laundered campaign funds to help Robert “Bob” Williams in a 2012 Assembly race. Nielsen made an earmarked contribution to Williams through the Tehama County Republican Central Committee that exceeded the individual contribution limit and was misreported. All of those associated with the contribution were fined a total of $23,000.

Bell did not respond to a request for comment about that case. Nielsen was unavailable Friday.

The commission has undergone major changes since starting its investigation of Peters. Last year, Remke, who had served for a year as the replacement for former Chairwoman Ann Ravel, was named by Gov. Jerry Brown to a four-year term. In subsequent weeks, the agency’s longtime enforcement chief and general counsel announced they were leaving.

The number of violations found by the commission and its enforcement division dropped by 24 percent last year to 775, down from 1,015 the year before.

“It’s fair to ask whether there is a new philosophy at the FPPC,” Levinson said. “It’s clear things are slowing down.”

Remke said the commission’s commitment to enforcement has not changed. The only thing that has changed is how the commission handles violations that it once managed through warning letters, as opposed to imposing fines, she said. The commission’s statistics show that the number of violations with fines remains unchanged.

The enforcement division spends more time on warning letter cases, making sure that violators are brought into compliance before any action is taken, Remke said. Then investigators check the new disclosures to make sure further violations have not happened.

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