The fate of a Sacramento lobbying firm’s contract with Orange County’s transportation agency is up in the air after the firm and its founder were slapped with a record-breaking fine for giving illegal gifts and campaign contributions to state lawmakers.
At an executive committee meeting Monday, Orange County Transportation Authority board members publicly argued over whether they should cancel their contract with Sloat, Higgins, Jensen & Associates.
“I personally don’t want to have a relationship with Sloat after these serious violations,” said OCTA Director Jeff Lalloway, who is also an Irvine City Council member.
OCTA Director Todd Spitzer, who is a county supervisor, agreed, calling on his colleagues to cut off the firm at their full board meeting March 10.
“I will not support writing a check to Sloat Higgins for lobbyist services,” Spitzer said in an interview. “Hopefully they’ll be terminated on Monday.”
Instead, Spitzer wants OCTA to explore temporarily keeping on its current lead lobbyist, Moira Topp, who works for Sloat, if she’s willing to leave the firm.
Topp would “have to disassociate herself from Sloat Higgins,” Spitzer said.
She wasn’t accused of participating in Sloat’s illegal acts, according to OCTA staff, and board members spoke highly of her work.
Other OCTA board members as well as the agency’s staff want to keep Sloat’s firm on until the the legislative session ends in August.
“We have the person we want; she happens to work for someone who got in trouble,” said OCTA board Chairman Shawn Nelson, who also serves as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
Nelson said the agency has no viable option other than keeping the firm’s contract for the time being.
“Most of us would like to think that you don’t own the sins of the rest of the organization.”
The committee ultimately voted 6-1 to start a fast-tracked bidding process for a lobbying firm for the 2015 legislative session, replace Sloat with Topp as the current contract manager and direct staff to continue considering options.
Kevin Sloat and his firm were recently fined $133,500 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for providing state legislators with liquor, wine, cigars, sports tickets and flowers in violation of state law.
It was the largest fine in FPPC history.
Director Lori Donchak, who also serves as a San Clemente city councilwoman, said she and her colleagues face a tough decision between ethics and their need to keep up their lobbying efforts this session.
“I personally get very annoyed with these ethical violations, because it’s like, what part of the job don’t people understand?” Donchak said.
Lance Larson, executive director of government relations at OCTA, also argued for keeping Sloat on through the end of the legislative session in November.
“I don’t want to take my best defense team off the field when we have one more game to go,” Larson said.
Lalloway shot back.
“Your best player just committed two technical fouls, in my view,” said Lalloway.
Lalloway voted against the motion, and Spitzer later clarified that he wants Sloat’s contract ended next week.
OCTA officials noted that there are several key issues before the Legislature that deeply affect their agency.
Those include cap and trade revenues, bus axel width restrictions, design-build contracting issues that threaten the I-405 expansion project and OCTA’s role managing the regional LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency.
Under its current contract, Sloat Higgins is paid $210,000 per year.
OCTA staff said they don’t believe Sloat’s violations are affecting their lobbying efforts in Sacramento.
Spitzer disagreed, saying that while legislators might not admit it, they’ve been given a warning by the FPPC about Sloat and are likely wary of his firm.
Board members clashed at several points Monday, including with agency staff.
Lalloway wasn’t happy when CEO Darrell Johnson suggested that he “distinguish the man from the firm.”
“Oh, you may. But I don’t,” Lalloway reacted.
There was also the question of what happens if OCTA terminates the contract altogether.
Nelson said that if that were to happen, OCTA would be left “without any representation” in Sacramento.
“Unless [Topp] quits, the only way to keep her is to have some relationship with this firm,” Nelson said.
Spitzer, meanwhile, said there are emergency contracting provisions that would allow OCTA to contract with Topp while not contracting with Sloat Higgins, if she leaves the firm.
“You can do a sole source as an urgent matter all the time,” Spitzer said. “We’re talking about just for the interim.”
The issue is set to go to the full board March 10 at 9 a.m.