An out-of-state activist and nonprofit involved in a dark money campaign backing Republican candidates in the 2012 Irvine City Council race have agreed to pay a fine to the state’s political watchdog for illegally concealing the true source of a $200,000 contribution.
Virginia-based Citizens in Charge and Pennsylvania resident Howard Rich were fined a combined $14,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for three violations of state law requiring public disclosure of campaign contributors, according to FPPC documents.
In 2012, Citizens in Charge funneled its huge donation to the statewide political action committee (PAC) called California Term Limits, which is organized by Orange County GOP insider and FlashReport blog publisher Jon Fleischman. The PAC primarily spent the money on backing Republican candidates for Irvine council while attacking their Democratic opponents.
Neither Citizens in Charge nor Rich ever disclosed that Rich was the true source of the contribution, the FPPC documents show. Rich is the chairman of U.S. Term Limits, another nonprofit that aims to limit how long elected officials remain in office.
The council was and continues to be split along partisan lines. Before 2012, Democrats held a 3-2 majority, but the Republicans flipped a seat in that election and have had the majority ever since. Also significant in that election was long-time Democratic powerbroker Larry Agran’s loss to Republican Steven Choi in the mayoral race.
Observers considered the dark money campaign, which was first reported in an Oct. 30, 2012 Voice of OC article, a game-changer for Irvine politics. It was unprecedented for an Irvine council race and played a major role in financing campaign mailers and attack ads.
After the election, former Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro alleged a number of improprieties in a complaint to the FPPC against the Citizens in Charge organization.
The investigation into potential political money laundering is ongoing, according to other media reports.
In 2012, Fleischman defended the anonymous funding behind Citizens in Charge as free speech.
And in a Voice of OC interview Tuesday, Fleischman said when he applied for the grant, he didn’t specify how he would spend the money. But he also said Agran – who had been on and off the council since the 1970s – was one of the worst term limits offenders in the county.
Fleischman also said he wasn’t aware that the investigation was targeting him, and that the only time FPPC investigators called him, which was in 2013, it was made clear that Fleischman and his group weren’t subjects of the probe.
He said he would be amending his PAC’s campaign finance disclosure reports in light of the FPPC action.
“I think it’s a little embarrassing that [Citizens in Charge and Rich] didn’t know the rules,” Fleischman said. “But I can’t control that.”