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A Fullerton councilwoman’s employment as a vice president of Curt Pringle & Associates, one of Orange County’s most influential government lobbying firms, raises questions about how the law requires elected officials to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
Like many public officials, Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald files state required disclosure forms with City Hall and the Fair Political Practices Commission that detail her income sources. The purpose of the filings, known as form 700s, is to allow members of the public to identify where elected officials’ private financial interests conflict with their public duties.
But the disclosure requirements only go so far. In Fitzgerald’s case, she disclosed that her firm CL7 Communications, which she co-founded and ran before joining Curt Pringle & Associates, received income last year from Pringle’s firm.
However, going forward, she will not be required to disclose Pringle’s lobbying clients, even though she is one of his high-level executives.
Without that next level of disclosure, it’s impossible for the public to know precisely where her work for Pringle might conflict with her public duties.
“A lot of times [the disclosures] are not particularly meaningful, and this is… a poster child example,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and Los Angeles ethics commissioner
Some City Hall observers have pointed to instances in which there at least appears to be a connection between a Pringle client and business before the Fullerton City Council.
Voice of OC reported that in 2012 Northrup Grumman had hired Curt Pringle & Associates to help oppose the Orange County Water District’s plans to cleanup groundwater contamination. The lobby firm assisted in organizing opposition from small businesses that might have been affected by the clean-up effort.
Fast forward to the City Council’s meeting on April 21 of this year, where Fitzgerald criticized the Orange County Water District’s handling of a years-long dispute over groundwater contamination. The district has unsuccessfully sued companies accused of polluting the groundwater basin decades ago with toxic chemicals during their operations in North Orange County.
Fitzgerald said the water district staff had been secretive in its efforts to make the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the lead agency on the issue. This means the EPA could give the site Superfund status, which would render moot any private settlements with the accused polluters, she said.
Fitzgerald learned about the implications of the EPA’s becoming lead agency when she met with EPA staff on a trip San Francisco with Brian Starr of the Orange County Business Council (OCBC), which has advocated against the water district’s plans and has also in the past been a client of Curt Pringle & Associates.
She also said that the water district’s attorney had made false representations.
“I’m just angry and frustrated that we’ve gotten to this point,” Fitzgerald said at the meeting, and that it was “extremely important… to trust but verify” claims from the water district staff.
In a Voice of OC interview, Fitzgerald said that Curt Pringle & Associates had never worked directly for Northrop Grumman and only for an attorney who was involved in the clean up fight. She said the work lasted for four months in 2012, and that since then Pringle hasn’t had any clients involved in the issue.
Fitzgerald also said OCBC isn’t currently a Pringle client, and that she hasn’t ever known OCBC to be a client.
She wouldn’t say whether she would be willing to disclose all of Pringle’s clients to allay concerns about potential conflicts of interest. She said that she’s an honest person who has recused herself whenever there has been a conflict, including stepping down from a water district board that had hired Pringle’s firm.
“My interest in this is because I care about the community,” said Fitzgerald, who pointed out that she doesn’t take the council stipend or any benefits. “I have no conflict on this issue.”
Jan Flory, a Fullerton councilwoman and also a water district board member, said she had also “heard the rumors” that Fitzgerald had a conflict on the groundwater issue, but that she asked Fitzgerald about it and was assured otherwise.
“My radar is sensitive to that. But I very much trust Jennifer,” Flory said.
Given the inadequacy in the law, known as the Political Reform Act, on disclosing sources of income from lobbying firms that employ public officials, Levinson said it would be “fair” to consider an amendment requiring greater disclosure.
“I think that the lobbying firms is probably the best example we have for maybe there should be a little more disclosure,” Levinson said. “I think it is very fair to think about a change in the law for that circumstance.”
Fitzgerald said she wouldn’t mind having to disclose more.
“I am all for the greatest amount of transparency possible,” Fitzgerald said.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek