OCTA Fires Lobbying Firm After Record Fine for Illegal Gifts

A sign for the Orange County Transportation Authority's bus service. (Photo credit: unknown)

A sign for the Orange County Transportation Authority's bus service. (Photo credit: unknown)

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Orange County transportation officials fired their Sacramento lobbying firm Monday in the wake of a massive fine against the firm for giving illegal gifts to state lawmakers.

“Their violation goes to the very essence of what they do for us here, which is lobbying,” said Orange County Transportation Authority Director Jeff Lalloway, who is also an Irvine city councilman.

Lalloway led the charge to fire Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates along with fellow Director Todd Spitzer.

“It’s just a horrible, horrible situation that we were put in,” said Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor.

The firm and its principal, Kevin Sloat, were recently fined $133,500 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for illegally providing state legislators with liquor, wine, cigars, sports tickets and flowers.

It’s the largest-ever fine for violating state regulations on lobbyists.  The FPPC serves as the state’s political ethics watchdog.

OCTA added itself to a growing list of clients who have dropped the firm in the aftermath of the revelations.

Board members voted 14-0 this morning to cancel their contract and fast-track the hiring of a replacement firm.

Directors Janet Nguyen, Greg Winterbottom and Pat Bates were not present for the vote.

Voice of OC reported earlier Monday that Bates has received more than $9,600 in campaign contributions from Sloat Higgins clients, including two on the same day last June.

Agency staff will now bring back options for quickly replacing Sloat Higgins at next Thursday’s meeting of the Legislative and Communications Committee.

The unanimous firing marked a surprise twist after several board members said Monday that they wanted to keep the firm on for the time being.

“Really it’s in our best interest to send a strong message but also to not be operating blind for the next 45 days,” said OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson, who is also chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

“For us to penalize the public that we serve by taking away her ability to provide services I think is not in the best interest of the public,” Director Al Murray said of OCTA’s current lobbyist Moira Topp, who works for Sloat Higgins.

Murray is also the mayor of Tustin.

“I’m not comfortable in the middle of [the legislative] session for us to change right now,” said Director Janet Nguyen, who left the discussion before the vote. Nguyen is also a county supervisor.

Lalloway and Spitzer pushed back.

“I think dealing with a firm like this right now, it just sends the wrong message to the public,” said Lalloway.

He added that continuing to work with Sloat Higgins would send a message that “we’re friends with them, so it’s all okay.”

The rest of the board ultimately agreed to kill the contract.

OCTA staff had steadfastly recommended against canceling the contract, asserting that the agency’s current lobbying efforts would suffer.

OCTA’s government relations chief Lance Larson warned that the agency would lose “institutional knowledge” if it axed the Sloat Higgins contract.

Spitzer, meanwhile, said the agency has plenty of options.

“There’s a plethora of very skilled advocates in Sacramento,” he said.

Regardless of their feelings about Kevin Sloat, board members were unanimous in praising their current lobbyist, Topp.

“She’s been a zealous advocate for this agency,” said Spitzer.

Topp could compete in the upcoming bidding process as an independent contractor or under a different firm, board members suggested.

OCTA is not alone in dropping Sloat Higgins recently.

Verizon, Accenture and the San Francisco 49ers cancelled their contracts with the firm last month, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“I know it’s gonna be devastating to Kevin,” Spitzer said of the revelations.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the context of the fine against Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates. It is the biggest ever fine for a violation of the state law regulating lobbyists.

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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