In June 2014, Shawn Nelson coasted to victory in the primary election, winning his second – and presumably final – term as an Orange County supervisor.
Presumably final because Nelson is blocked by term limits from running again for supervisor in 2018, and because he's said publicly that he plans to run for judge at the end of his current term.
But then a curious thing happened.
In January, he officially re-named his political fundraising committee to “Shawn Nelson for Supervisor 2018.” And he’s been raising tens of thousands of dollars into it since then, under the new name.
That includes $43,000 from donors in June and likely thousands more at a well-attended fundraiser last week, on top of $94,000 in leftover money from last year’s election.
Does this mean Nelson wants to extend supervisors’ term limits?
In 2012, he voted as supervisor to put such a measure before voters, but the effort failed 3-2. But none of the other supervisors at the time are still serving on the board, and Nelson would need support from just two of his newer colleagues in order to place it on the ballot.
Or is it because he wants to run for another office – such as judge – and wants to maximize his ability to fundraise from people who do business with the county?
The invitation to last week’s fundraiser prominently featured a logo for “Shawn Nelson – Orange County Supervisor” at the top. And several of his donors so far this year are contractors and others who have business before him as supervisor.
As for Nelson’s plans to run for judge, he hasn’t issued any formal public announcements. But he did acknowledge his judicial aspirations earlier this year when being interviewed about a different subject by Voice of OC.
There are also questions as to whether it’s legal for Nelson to fundraise for an office he can’t currently run for.
Nelson didn’t return messages seeking comment for this story. A reporter did reach his treasurer, Jen Slater, but she declined to comment.
Regardless of the supervisor's motives, the committee, as currently named, could conflict with state campaign finance law.
“If there is no intent to run for re-election in 2018, a candidate must change the committee name back to 2014,” said Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
“The law requires that you have the candidate’s last name, office sought and year of election in the name,” he added, noting the relevant law on this.
In Nelson’s case, the official election year appears to technically still be 2014, because Nelson never re-designated his committee for the 2018 election cycle.
To do so would have required that Nelson submit a separate statement under penalty of perjury that he intends to run for the 2018 term, which could create its own problems due to the term limits.
Instead, Nelson and his treasurer re-named the committee for 2018, without officially changing the election cycle from 2014.
They’re planning on naming the committee back to 2014, according to local political watchdog Shirley Grindle, who sent Nelson an email late last week raising concerns about the committee name.
In a conversation with Grindle, Slater said she was seeking advice from the FPPC on the issue and preparing a letter explaining the whole situation, according to Grindle.
“If they had refused to request advice form the FPPC, I would have filed a complaint," Grindle said. "That way, I can force the issue to be resolved. But they have agreed to request advice on this.”
Neither of the two agencies where the updated committee name would be filed – the California Secretary of State and county Registrar of Voters – had records of it as of Tuesday afternoon, spokespeople said. But it could be on its way in the mail.
Many of Nelson’s donors in June were people who do business with the county and have given to Nelson before, such as county parking contractor PCI, Irvine Co. lobbyist Michael Recupero, and real estate developer – and aspiring OC Register co-owner – Mike Harrah.
The June fundraiser was held at Harrah’s downtown Santa Ana restaurant, Original Mike’s, with Harrah chipping in $1,300-worth of “venue & catering costs.”
Nelson also held a fundraiser last Thursday at Zov’s Bistro in Tustin, a favorite hangout spot for local politicos.
An invitation to the event, seeking contributions of up to $1,900, asked that checks be made payable to “Shawn Nelson for Supervisor 2018.” The fundraiser was attended more than 30 people, including Nelson and his chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau.
Grindle says that given all this fundraising and the nearly $100,000 Nelson had in the bank after the last election, his treasurer's claim that the account is only for officeholder expenses doesn’t add up. She's suspicious Nelson is using it to build up a war chest to campaign for a different office.
“Why is he raising this amount of money?" Grindle asked. "He already has a lot in the bank. And is he planning on using this solely for officeholder expenses or is he planning on transferring it to another committee to run for office?”