When Anaheim Councilwoman Lucille Kring was campaigning for office last year, she took the following positions on four issues that have dominated city politics:
- No on a controversial $158-million hotel room tax subsidy.
- Yes to a ballot measure for Anaheim residents to vote on all future hotel tax subsidies.
- Yes to changing the City Council’s at large election system to a system by which council members are elected by districts.
- Yes to a civilian oversight review board of police.
Since being elected, Kring has changed her position on all four. She voted for the subsidy and against district elections; she vocally opposed a civilian police oversight board; and she refused to second a motion by the mayor to place the hotel tax subsidy voters measure on a citywide ballot.
Campaign finance records show Kring received thousands of dollars in contributions from groups and businesses that lobbied for her change of heart. And because Kring loaned her campaign $75,000, some of these donations went toward paying off the debt and therefore straight into her pocket.
The donations include, among others, thousands of dollars from Support Our Anaheim Resort SOAR, a Disneyland-funded group that has not taken an official position on district elections but has several advisory board members who lobbied against the electoral change and for the subsidy; the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which was also for the subsidy and against district elections; and hotel partnerships connected to Bill O’Connell, the recipient of the hotel tax subsidy.
Kring’s actions have led some outraged supporters to state publicly that she betrayed them.
“You lied to me,” said resident Larry Larsen during public comments at the May 28 council meeting. Larsen had agreed to place a campaign sign promoting Kring in his yard after she told him she was adamantly against the hotel subsidy.
“Madam, you cannot be trusted or believed. You will say or do anything for a vote. How much was your integrity worth? Was all your campaign debt paid off?”
And it’s not just residents who say that Kring broke promises.
Mayor Tom Tait said that he endorsed Kring for City Council because she changed her position from opposing an initiative, called “Let the People Vote,” that would require a citywide vote on future hotel tax subsidies to supporting it. But when Tait proposed that initiative at a council meeting, she changed her mind again, remaining silent and allowing the motion to die for lack of a second.
In a brief interview, Kring denied that she changed her position in exchange for the campaign contributions.
She said the subsidy deal evolved into a package that was better for Anaheim. For one thing, the time the developer can collect room tax revenue was extended by five years so the city could share in 10 percent of the revenue as opposed to none. Critics counter, however, that it’s a worse deal, because the developer’s deadline to begin construction on one of the hotels isn’t until 2019.
When asked why she didn’t support the mayor’s ballot measure, she insisted that it didn’t come up for a vote. But at the May 14 council meeting during which the subsidy was approved, Kring refused to back the mayor’s motion to put the “Let the People Vote” initiative on the ballot.
Kring said she couldn’t recall favoring civilian oversight of police during the campaign, but she is on record as stating so at a Voice of OC candidates forum on Anna Drive. She said even if she had supported it at first, there are several layers of oversight already.
Kring also insisted that the contributions and votes are legal.
When questioned about the campaign contributions and votes, Kring said: “That’s your impression. It’s not true at all. If I get a check from you, it does not preclude me from voting on an issue for Voice of OC.”
But Kring is legally precluded from engaging in a quid pro quo, that is casting a vote with the understanding that she would receive money in return.
Curiously, Kring has in the past made statements implying that Disneyland and former mayor Curt Pringle, who is now the foremost lobbyist in Anaheim, finance campaigns with the expectation that they would receive the right policy votes in return.
In 2006 during Kring’s last stint on council, Pringle refused to throw her a promised fundraiser because she “never voted his way,” she wrote in an Oct. 10 email to a former supporter.
“I told [Pringle] my vote was not for sale,” Kring wrote.
In another email to supporters on Oct. 26, Kring noted that Disney had dramatically increased its campaign spending by funneling cash through various political action committees and pondered whether the company was spending large sums in an effort to control the council.
“Why is Disney spending so much money on candidates that receive $18,000/year in salary? What do they expect from these candidates,” Kring wrote. “I never believed that Disney ran the city but I’ve changed my mind.”
A Case of Curious Timing
Fast forward to 2013, and Kring seems to no longer have such concerns about Pringle, Disney and the rest of the business establishment.
When confronted with the emails, Kring said that Pringle had never tried to buy her vote and that she once again has changed her mind about whether Disney runs the city.
“No, I don’t believe that Disney controls the city,” Kring wrote in an email Monday to Voice of OC. “I don’t believe that Curt tried to buy my vote. No one ever has or will.”
Yet the timing of a Pringle-organized fundraiser for Kring raises questions. Pringle was the lobbyist for O’Connell and his partner Ajesh Patel, the two hoteliers whose GardenWalk hotel project was the beneficiary of the $158-million subsidy.
In “mid-April,” Kring met with Pringle, O’Connell and Patel to discuss the tax subsidy, Kring wrote in an email obtained by Voice of OC.
Two weeks after the vote to approve the subsidy — and only one day after Larsen berated Kring publicly for betraying her campaign promise — Pringle held a fundraiser for her at The Catch restaurant near Angel Stadium, campaign finance records show.
Anaheim Park Place Inn, an O’Connell partnership that the hotelier claims is controlled by his son, contributed $1,000 to Kring’s campaign May 29, the day of the fundraiser, records show. And on two occasions in February, Stovall’s Inn LLC and Orangewood LLC — other O’Connell partnerships — contributed $300 and $250, respectively, according to the records.
By the end of the campaign finance filing period in June, Kring had repaid herself $37,500, records show.
Kring didn’t deny that the contributions came from O’Connell and defended them. She said that she had received support from Pringle and O’Connell because she has known them for many years. And the May 29 fundraiser was originally set for April — around the time of her meeting with Pringle, O’Connell and Patel — but was moved because of a scheduling conflict, she said.
“There was nothing conspiratorial about it,” Kring said in an interview. “Bill and I have been friends for more years then you probably have been alive.”
Others said the circumstances at least strongly suggest a quid pro quo. City activist and blogger Jason Young, the former supporter whom Kring had emailed, said that the email and the fundraiser show that Pringle had successfully purchased her vote after previously failing to do so.
“It’s clear,” Young said.
While the emails, campaign contributions and votes may give the public the appearance of an illegal quid pro quo, they don’t constitute proof, according to Tracy Westen, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental studies. To prove it, there needs to be direct evidence of a vote-for-cash deal, like an email chain showing clearly that a council member asked for and received money in exchange for a vote.
The Kring emails, however, “generate exactly the kind of thing you get from that constituent: feeling a betrayal, feeling that they’re selling votes,” Westen said. “Unless you’ve got a microphone in the room or somebody stupid enough to write it down, you’ll never prove it.”
Nonetheless, the appearance is damaging to the public’s confidence, Westen said. The circumstances surrounding Kring’s fundraising has sparked a debate among good-government experts, a San Diego-based attorney and Kring over what is and isn’t public corruption.
“These emails are kind of dynamite. They show why the public is suspicious,” Westen said.
Cory Briggs, a San Diego-based attorney who has called on the Orange County district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office to prosecute Kring and the council majority for violations of the California Political Reform Act, said that the circumstances surrounding Kring’s vote on the hotel subsidy would likely persuade a jury on charges that she engaged in a quid pro quo.
“If I were Lucille Kring, I would hire a criminal defense attorney, and I would pray that I would never have to face a trial,” Briggs said.
Breaking The Law, or a Call for Reform?
Beyond the other circumstances, Briggs claimed in his correspondence to prosecutors that two $500 contributions from SOAR — whose advisory board includes O’Connell — to Kring’s campaign before and after the vote are enough to indicate a quid pro quo.
Briggs’ argument is that SOAR is essentially a shell corporation for O’Connell to launder campaign money. The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which also contributed to Kring’s campaign before and after the vote, lobbied publicly for the hotel subsidy and against district elections.
“SOAR itself might not actually make money off of [the hotel subsidy], but I don’t think you can evade these rules to set up a shell corporation in order to put an extra bureaucracy between you and the politician,” Briggs said. “If you could, then people would just set up these shell corporations and there’s no way to prove a bribe to a public official.”
Robert Stern, president of the center for governmental studies and the expert who helped write the political reform act, has cast doubt on such claims, saying that it has never been illegal in California to make contributions to elected officials who then vote on the contributor’s projects.
Westen said that the circumstances surrounding Kring — her emails, contributions, fundraiser and flip-flopping — taken together are an example of a campaign finance system that desperately needs reform.
“That’s why it’s so hard to get good health care and good public education, but if you want to bail out the banks, that can happen in one day,” Westen said. “Because those are the people giving the money. … One percent of the people give well over 90 percent of the contributions in congressional and senatorial races.”
For one thing, some jurisdictions restrict fundraising to pay off candidates’ campaign debt to themselves to a short time right after an election, Westen said. After that, the debt must be forgiven.
“I think personal loans are more problematical, because there’s a greater danger that the elected official will feel even more charitable to the people paying their debts. … That is viewed as an especially pernicious problem,” Westen said. “There’s a greater danger of a quid pro quo.”
Westen also advocates a switch to a public financing system. The New York City and Los Angeles, for example, match several times the dollars candidates raise, making it easier for candidates with less money to compete.
But selling a public financing system to the public can be challenging. Most residents would be unwilling to give taxpayer money to Kring after reading her emailed statements about city politics, Westen said.
“Most would say, are you kidding me? I wouldn’t give those guys the time of day,” Westen said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article may have left the impression that SOAR took an official position against district elections. The group has not taken an official position on that issue.