Local Elections

Yolo school board candidate charged with campaign finance violations

Maria Grijalva
Maria Grijalva Maria Grijalva

A Yolo County school board candidate has been charged by the Yolo County District Attorney with three misdemeanor counts for alleged campaign finance violations.

The Yolo DA filed charges last week against West Sacramento resident Maria Grijalva, alleging she broke both state law and West Sacramento municipal code by misappropriating campaign funds to pay for mailers and a print ad for another candidate.

Grijalva disputes the charges, and said she believes they are politically motivated because she raised funds to unseat incumbent Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig during the June primary election.

The criminal complaint alleges that Grijalva, through her “Grijalva for Education Trustee 2018” fundraising committee, improperly paid $475 for a newspaper ad in September and about $6,064 on direct mail pieces in October that supported West Sacramento mayoral candidate Joe DeAnda.

DeAnda is not charged with any wrongdoing and there is no evidence that his campaign violated any law, according to a press release from the District Attorney’s office.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, DeAnda also denied having any connection to Grijalva.

The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the charges, but Yolo County chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven said in a statement that most alleged violations committed by local candidates are based on “inexperience or inadvertence.”

“For many, a warning and immediate correction usually suffices,” Raven said in a statement. “However, significant or ongoing violations of the California Political Reform Act or local ordinances can pose real threats to the integrity of elections, and are taken seriously and prosecuted.”

Grijalva confirmed the ad buys, but said that she believes candidate-controlled committees can make the kind of contributions that the Yolo District Attorney’s office is singling out as illegal.

“Under Citizens United, I can spend a million dollars to buy a thousand lawn signs and distribute them to everyone because that’s my right,” Grijalva said. “I’m not first person to do an independent expenditure.”

A district attorney pursuing misdemeanor campaign finance violations is “rare” when it isn’t in conjunction with more severe criminal charges like money laundering or embezzlement, said Emelyn Rodriguez, a campaign finance attorney and former senior commission counsel with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Rodriguez does not represent or advise Grijalva in this case but Grijalva said she consulted Rodriguez before making the disputed ad buys.

West Sacramento municipal code sets restrictions on certain campaign finance activities, but Rodriguez said the charge against Grijalva is a “misinterpretation” of the local ordinance. The law generally limits candidate controlled-committees to $250 donations made directly to campaigns, but it does not address or limit independent expenditures. Those are not contributions by definition, Rodriguez said, and are not subject to contribution limits.

The state violations Grijalva is charged with forbid candidate-controlled committees, like Grijalva’s “Grijalva for Education Trustee 2018” committee, from making independent expenditures to support or oppose other candidates. But in 2014, a Sacramento Superior court judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional, and banned the FPPC from enforcing the provision, she said.

Grijalva said she did not receive warnings from the District Attorney’s office but has received several letters in the last two months from the office saying it was investigating her campaign spending both in this year’s election and in the 2016 election, when she ran for West Sacramento City Council.

The FPPC, which enforces state laws on campaign finance, declined to comment on the matter but spokesman Jay Wierenga said there has been a complaint filed against Grijalva.

A conviction could result in fines, jail time and a prohibition of being a candidate for public office for up to four years, according to the Yolo District Attorney’s press release.

The charges don’t affect Grijalva’s run for office in November’s election, Raven said.