Politics & Government

Two California politicians reach settlements with FPPC over campaign funding

Two California politicians have agreed to pay hefty penalties to the state’s political ethics watchdog for campaign law violations.

Democrat Dean Florez, a former state senator and candidate for statewide office, will pay a record $60,000 fine to the Fair Political Practices Commission for spending contributions on personal items and failing to refund general election donations after abandoning his candidacy for lieutenant governor.

In a separate matter, the FPPC continued its pursuit of independent expenditure committees illegally coordinating their contributions with candidates they support for state office, settling with Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, for $21,092 for an over-the-limit donation.

The settlements, released Monday by the FPPC, are scheduled to go before the agency’s board Nov. 14.

Florez, who represented the San Joaquin Valley town of Shafter, violated state law by spending $26,541 in campaign funds to make nearly 170 personal purchases, including airfare, dining, concert tickets and more than 130 stops at gasoline stations. Included in his campaign disclosure statements were trips to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and Washington, D.C.

He also failed to refund $247,000 in general election contributions stemming from his lieutenant governor bid in 2010.

Florez did not return messages seeking comment. Calls to a political consultant also were not returned.

The settlement is the largest combined fine in the state’s history for a case involving personal use of campaign funds, according to the agency.

California lawmakers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in campaign contributions on entertainment, fine dining and travel abroad. While state law bars such spending for personal use, lawmakers must only state that the spending was “reasonably” related to political, legislative or government purposes.

Rank-and-file legislators earn $90,526 annually – increasing to $95,291 Dec. 1. Most also accept another roughly $30,000 in annual tax-free per diem payments.

From 2007 through 2010 – while Florez was still in the Senate – he raised about $1.5 million for the lieutenant governor’s race he abandoned well before the 2010 primary. Current lawmakers have established at least 15 active committees to raise money for future statewide offices.

The FPPC’s investigation into personal use grew out of an audit by the Franchise Tax Board.

In examining committees controlled by Florez, the FPPC later found that after pulling out of the race, Florez refunded about $72,500 to all who requested repayment. He then transferred $437,000 – including the $247,000 in general election contributions – to his Dean Florez for State Controller 2014. That account had $9,529 as of the June 30 disclosure report.

Florez told the FPPC his bookkeeper sought the commission’s advice before transferring the money, but now understands that his lieutenant governor committee was required to refund all of the remaining general election contributions after he withdrew from the primary, according to FPPC settlement documents.

Among the violations included in the settlement, Florez deposited $5,750 from his lieutenant governor committee into an unrelated bank account. The money was never used for campaign-related expenses. Among the items the settlement lists him spending:

• $6,780 for gasoline purchases.

• $5,200 for monthly parking passes.

• $2,608 for personal travel, including airfare, a rental car and dining.

• $1,459 for three personal purchases at Ikea and Beck’s Furniture.

• $1,415 for purchases at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Best Buy and a bookstore.

• $1,396 for concert tickets, a golf shirt, fireworks and an annual subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio.

• $1,247 for three personal purchases at Walmart and Home Depot.

In the Alejo case, Joaquin Ross and Voters for a New California, an independent committee he helped operate, settled in April for $6,500 for spending $28,892 on three mailings supporting Alejo in the June 2010 primary for the open seat spanning Monterey to Santa Clara counties.

Voters for a New California was not allowed to donate more than $3,900 to Alejo’s primary campaign – unless it spent independently on his behalf without coordinating with the candidate’s campaign. The FPPC investigation found Ross violated state election law by serving as Alejo’s campaign manager and as the chief officer of the independent expenditure committee. Alejo agreed to pay the amount in excess of $3,900.

Such coordination has long been suspected in legislative races but has been difficult to prove. The Voters for a New California probe is believed to be the first time the FPPC has been able to levy a fine for a violation. No other charges are expected in the case.

Alejo is coming off a banner year in the Legislature after Gov. Jerry Brown signed his high-profile measures to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and eventually raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour from $8. His office did not return a message seeking comment about the settlement.

In April, the assemblyman told The Bee he was not aware of the case or of details into the committee’s spending. “I trust the FPPC’s investigation was thorough and their judgment will be just,” he said at the time.