The collective reaction of most Santa Ana City Council members to the $13,000 fine slapped on Mayor Miguel Pulido by the state’s political watchdog for improprieties surrounding a property swap with a city contractor can be best described as a shrug.
The fine, levied by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) after more than a yearlong investigation, is part of a pending settlement agreement whereby Pulido admits to six counts of violating the Political Reform Act. The commission still needs to ratify the settlement at its May 21 meeting.
Councilman David Benavides, who ran against Pulido for the mayoral seat in 2010, said the fine offered “resolution” for the community, while Councilman Sal Tinajero called the fine “significant.”
“At least the mayor has admitted to his wrongdoings. You gotta give him credit for that,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
Only Councilman Roman Reyna, Pulido’s opponent in last November’s Election, expressed disapproval of the punishment.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me, if he was found guilty I would have hoped the punishment would fit the crime,” Reyna said. “As far as the allegations go, and what facts we do know, you would think $13,000 is relatively minimal.”
Disparities in Justice
Many in the community agree with Reyna that Pulido got off easy considering allegations he took an illegal gift or even a bribe by receiving a house worth more than twice the fair market value of the parking lot he gave up in exchange, concealed the transactions on nearly a dozen public filings, and then voted for contracts with the vendor.
Critics are also saying the settlement reveals a disparity in the justice system, where the state comes down hard on average residents but takes a softer approach with politicians.
Carolyn Torres, chairwoman of Chicanos Unidos, which is fighting neighborhood gang injunctions in Santa Ana, said Pulido’s election campaigns tout him as being tough on crime “he’s not involved in.”
“We have these youth who may or may not be doing anything wrong, with no leeway in making mistakes. And this is a grown man knowingly doing illegal things, and there’s no repercussions for him,” Torres said. “It was such a laughable punishment, I doubt people think, ‘oh justice was served, politicians get in trouble too.’”
Dylan Thompson, a local community activist, said the settlement is reminiscent of the banks bailout at the start of the Great Recession.
“They’re only fined or pay fees that are only a fraction of the profit they’ve earned from the misconduct they’re accused of,” Thompson said. “When that’s the only thing that ever happens, that’s not justice anymore. That’s the buyout.”
Shirley Grindle, Pulido’s former campaign treasurer and the county’s campaign finance watchdog, said the FPPC settlement’s assertion that the violations were Pulido’s first violations of the Political Reform Act wasn’t accurate.
She pointed to the fact that the FPPC has another ongoing investigation into whether Pulido illegally wiped away campaign debts from his disclosure forms as if they never existed, a probe that started with her complaint to the agency.
Grindle also noted that Pulido for years has been dogged by accusations of conflicts of interest and hiding his financial dealings. A Superior Court judge in 2003 found that Pulido failed to disclose his financial ties to Kris Kakkar, a then Santa Ana developer who had received city subsidies.
“He comes across as Mr. good guy, but there’s just so much. You don’t know whether he’s lazy or dishonest,” Grindle said. “He certainly has had a lot of very iffy issues down here in Orange County. So knowing about the other things he’s been involved with, I’m glad they fined him $13,000, but I think it should have fined him closer to 20.”
Dozens of commenters and story shares on Facebook expressed disdain at the settlement.
While he pays $13,000, he “gets to keep $184,000 in built in “profit,”‘ said Francisco Barrigan in a post. “Seems like unethical or illegal behavior does pay.”
“Chump Change!” Posted Elizabeth M. Weber.
Good government experts, meanwhile, say the fine could send mixed messages to the political class.
Tracy Westen, the ethics expert who first questioned whether the property swap was actually a bribe in disguise, said by not explaining why there’s no determination regarding whether Pulido took an illegal gift, it opens a possible loophole.
“Without an explanation (as to) why this isn’t a gift, the FPPC has left open a potential loophole that others might try to exploit,” Westen said.
Jessica Levinson, a Los Angeles ethics commissioner and associate professor at Loyola Law School, had a different take, saying that settlement agreements don’t typically include an analysis of why an official isn’t being charged for a violation.
As far as the possible loophole, Levinson said it’s not a complicated issue. The standard for whether an official received a gift is whether the trade was an equal, fair market value trade.
“If the swap wasn’t fair market value, then it was an illegal gift,” Levinson said. “In terms of time and resources, it’s entirely possible [the FPPC] made a reasonable decision… My guess is if the FPPC thought they could have gotten $230,000 they would have gone for that.”
That said, Levinson also doesn’t think the settlement sends a strong message to other public officials thinking about engaging in similar wrongdoing.
“$13,000 is not very much money when we’re talking about the potential crimes here,” Levinson said. “I don’t know enough to say it’s inappropriate, I know enough to say it’s not eye popping.”