Watchdog Hits Buena Park Councilman With Big Fine

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The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission this month fined Buena Park Councilman Art Brown for failing to disclose thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and expenses, taking illegal cash from anonymous donors and spotty record keeping.

Brown and his wife, Christie “Chris” Brown, were fined $8,500 for the violations, a price the filing said was warranted because the Browns repeatedly ignored state law and only sporadically cooperated with FPPC investigators. The maximum penalty for the four violations cited is $20,000.

“These violations and circumstances, taken as a whole, show a pattern of conduct which resulted in a lack of disclosure and deprived the public of information regarding respondents’ campaign activity,” an FPPC filing stipulating the penalty reads.

According to the filing, Brown’s troubles with the state began several years ago when the Franchise Tax Board attempted to review his campaign accounts through an audit program, created following the 1974 Political Reform Act, which requires elected officials to publicly disclose personal and campaign related finances.

Auditors ran into a major hurdle – Brown wouldn’t provide any records.

Brown disputes this, saying he doesn’t recall being contacted by the tax board. However, he also refused to file his required campaign finance disclosure forms, leading campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle in 2010 to file her first complaint about him to the FPPC.

Grindle called Brown one of the biggest “scofflaws” in the county due to his careless disregard for campaign finance law.

Brown has served on Buena Park’s city council since 1990, rotating between mayor and council member over the years. He unsuccessfully ran for county supervisor in 2010 and contemplated a run for clerk-recorder.

Brown didn’t return a phone call for comment on this article.

The FPPC found in their investigation that Brown failed to show nearly $6,800 in campaign contributions and almost $9,200 in expenses on his disclosure forms for his 2012 council campaign and 2010 supervisorial campaign, the FPPC filing shows.

Brown also took two cash contributions over $100, which is illegal and a major red flag because cash donations leave behind no records, according to the filing. Exactly who gave Brown the cash is still unknown, so the “public harm is particularly high,” the filing states.

Finally, Brown’s record keeping was so inadequate that FPPC investigators couldn’t determine “whether limits were exceeded, or whether other violations were committed,” the filing states.

The Brown case comes as a battle continues to brew over whether the county should have a local ethics commission to watch over elected officials.

Voters in November passed Measure E, which is designed to make the FPPC the primary enforcer of the county’s campaign finance law, known as TINCUP. For now, the measure isn’t viable because state legislation that would have allowed the agency to enforce the county law failed to pass.

Grindle, who authored TINCUP, opposed Measure E and argues instead for a local ethics commission to handle a wide spectrum of complaints. She says the slow pace of the FPPC’s action against Brown is evidence that the state’s enforcement would be plodding and inadequate.

“And the Board of Supervisors is asking us to rely on the FPPC to enforce local violations?” Grindle said. “Forget it.”

Grindle has clashed repeatedly with supervisors over the issue, with her argument bolstered by a recent grand jury report that called for a local ethics commission and recited a county history steeped in corruption.

Supervisors lashed out at the grand jury, at one point threatening to cut the stipends of grand jurors. Ultimately, they decided to place a measure before voters to contract with the FPPC for TINCUP enforcement.

But, Grindle says, that it took the FPPC four years from the time she first filed a complaint against Brown to finally fine the councilman, shows why it is the wrong agency for the job.

FPPC spokesman Jay Wirenga, however, takes issue with Grindle’s timeline.

Wirenga says the FPPC couldn’t begin its investigation into Brown until the Franchise Tax Board finished its audit, which didn’t happen until 2012.

“It basically took less than two years for our side of things,” Wirenga said.

Wirenga pointed to other Orange County cases that were settled much faster than four years, including an action against former CalOptima executive Dr. Clayton Chau, who failed to disclose drug company speaking fees on his 2013 statement of economic interests.

The FPPC fine came just over a year after Voice of OC first exposed Chau’s omission.

Grindle said that even Wirenga’s timeline of events is still too long for local enforcement of TINCUP, and she said that, while the FPPC can point to cases they handled quickly, she can point to cases they’ve handled slowly.

“I think [two years] is terrible too,” Grindle said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Board of Supervisors cut the county grand jury’s budget. We regret the error.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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