Capitol Alert

Hotel that reimbursed workers for campaign contributions faces $310,000 state fine

Jodi Remke, chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, conducts business during a meeting on Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento.
Jodi Remke, chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, conducts business during a meeting on Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

A luxury Santa Monica hotel has agreed to pay a $310,000 fine from California’s campaign watchdog for illegally funneling money to city council candidates in hopes of preserving the property’s Pacific Ocean views.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission says it’s the second largest fine in the agency’s history.

The Huntley Hotel gave nearly $100,000 in contributions in the names of other entities to four candidates for Santa Monica City Council that it believed would oppose the expansion of a neighboring hotel, according to the FPPC. The hotel and FPPC staff agreed to the penalty, but the five-member commission will meet Aug. 17 to consider it.

The case against the Huntley stems from a war with the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows on Wilshire Boulevard.

In 2012, the Miramar was working to secure the city’s approval for a massive expansion that called for the construction of a 21-story high rise. The Huntley, which sits behind the Miramar’s sprawling grounds, opposed the expansion.

The Huntley hired Susan Burnside, a Los Angeles political consultant, to organize community opposition to the project, according to FPPC case documents. Burnside and two Santa Monica residents opened a political action committee, Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth, to support city council candidates. Manju Raman, the hotel’s assistant general manager, raised funds for the committee.

When she fell short of her goal before the November 2012 election, Raman asked hotel employees and their spouses to write checks to the candidates and offered to reimburse them. The Huntley was not identified as the source of the contributions to candidates Richard McKinnon and Ted Winterer and incumbents Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis.

At the same time, Raman began soliciting similar contributions from nearby business owners and associates, including the hotel’s information technology consultant, for independent expenditures to support candidates. The hotel solicited 44 contributions that totaled $86,560 in 2012 from groups that it reimbursed.

The hotel asked for and reimbursed a $5,000 payment to its political action committee in 2014. The next year Raman once against asked hotel employees and friends to write checks in their names, this time totaling $5,200 from 16 contributions, to help pay down McKinnon’s outstanding debt from his unsuccessful campaign.

In all, the Huntley set up 62 illegal contributions to city council candidates totaling $97,350 from 2012 through 2015.

Winterer won his seat in 2012 and now serves as mayor of Santa Monica. O’Day and Davis both won re-election. The hotel’s proposed tower has not been constructed.

A look inside the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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