Hooray! It’s Form 700 Day

Clockwise from top left: Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero, Rancho Santiago Community College District Vice Chancellor Peter Hardash, county Supervisor Michelle Steel, and OC Water District board member (and chief of staff to Supervisor Shawn Nelson) Denis Bilodeau.

It is perhaps fitting that the day public officials in California have to disclose to the rest of us their financial interests – ranging from income streams and gifts, to stocks and real estate holdings — is also April Fools’ Day.

Many of us in the world of watchdog journalism refer to April 1 as Form 700 day, after the official name given to the disclosures, which are also known as statements of economic interests. And for us it’s like Christmas, Hanukkah and the Lunar New Year all rolled into one.

Each year as we pore through the disclosures, we invariably find all kinds of interesting tidbits regarding the business interests of our public servants, along with the myriad ways in which some exploit their public offices for personal gain.

This year was no different as we found, among other things, payments to a supervisor from an oil company that has fracked locally, a city councilman’s effort to conceal income from pot shops, and more gifts lavished on a community college district official by contractors he’s in charge of overseeing at the district.

Before we commence with the details, it’s important to note that this is far from a comprehensive review of all Form 700s filed by officials in Orange County. It amounts to what our limited staff could get through this week. If you want to join us in our Form 700 searches, please do, and please send anything interesting you find our way. Under state law, the filings can be quickly obtained by calling or emailing the clerk at any city, special district, or the county.

With that being said, here is a rundown of what we’ve found so far in the filings, which cover the 2015 calendar year:

Santa Ana Councilman Hides Pot Shop Income

It’s widely known that Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero was a paid consultant last year to pot shops around town. However, no payments from pot shops showed up on his Form 700.

Instead, Tinajero stated that he received between $10,000 and $100,000 from The Executive Advisory, a consulting company based in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Encino. So based on this disclosure, which was new in his filing this year, Tinajero either routed his pot shop income through The Executive Advisory, or he did pro bono consulting for pot shops and did paid consulting for some unknown entity.

We’re willing to bet it was the former, especially since Tinajero, whose day job is teaching high school and coaching debate, spearheaded a drive to allow pot shops in Santa Ana.

Also, multiple sources in the industry said Tinajero was describing his service as lobbying other cities to allow pot shops in town. And he was reportedly advocating on behalf of marijuana stores in the cities of Stanton and Westminster.

Supervisor Receiving Income from Oil Company That Has Fracked on Unincorporated County Land

County Supervisor Michelle Steel reported receiving between $1,000 and $10,000 in payments last year – described as “royalties” – from Linn Operating, Inc., an oil and gas company based out of Houston.

In recent years, the firm, which is a subsidiary of Linn Energy, has performed hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, on about 30 wells in unincorporated county territory north of Brea. Unincorporated, or non-city, areas fall under the land use control of county supervisors, such as Steel.

The controversial practice has drawn concern from nearby residents in light of reports that several cities and towns near fracking operations elsewhere in the country have seen their drinking water contaminated by methane, hydrocarbons and other toxins.

Such claims are disputed by the oil and gas industry, and the potential environmental effects of fracking are still being studied. A draft report last year from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” but did say there have been “specific instances” of fracking impacting water supplies, “including contamination of drinking water wells.”

Anti-fracking activists have called on the county Board of Supervisors to ban the practice – as has been done in Beverly Hills, Carson, and elsewhere – but haven’t gained any traction among the supervisors.

More Income to Supervisor Connected to Ron King

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s filings show that in 2015 he again received over $10,000 from a firm run by Ron King, who was a leading fundraiser for the campaign against a controversial North Tustin senior housing project that Spitzer ended up killing last year.

Prior filings show that since he took office in 2013, Spitzer has received consulting payments from King’s firm, Centaurus Financial, that could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Spitzer didn’t publicly disclose any of this income when he first proposed killing the project early last year and King testified before the Board of Supervisors against the project.

King owns a home about 0.7 miles from the senior housing site and argued in the past that the housing project would make traffic worse on his street, Hewes Avenue.

Spitzer was told by the County Counsel’s office last July that he shouldn’t participate in any decisions about the project, because a new regulation from the state Fair Political Practices Commission presents conflict concerns, given his income from King’s firm.

Spitzer then hired an attorney, who sent a letter about the issue to the FPPC, which wrote back in October that Spitzer couldn’t participate because of the potential traffic impacts to King’s home.

Spitzer’s attorney then went to the FPPC again, this time pointing to traffic studies saying the project wouldn’t affect King’s home, and the agency gave its blessing to Spitzer in November.

“I just want you to understand, despite the allegations…I’ve been following everything [to] the letter, by the book,” Spitzer said when he convinced his colleagues to kill the project in December.

This year’s disclosure revealed more of Spitzer’s income connected to King.

He disclosed between $10,000 and $100,000 in board member income last year from a real estate firm called Strategic Realty Trust, based in the Bay Area city of San Mateo.

Spitzer obtained that roughly $50,000-per-year board position in January 2014 due to a dissident shareholder takeover led largely by King, according to filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

Top Aide Routes Environmental Agency Payments Through Home Business Entity

Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau, has set up an interesting arrangement for the nearly $39,000 per year he receives from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) as Nelson’s assistant.

Bilodeau reports that he received between $10,000 and $100,000 last year from a business entity at his home called “Infrastructure Group, Inc.,” whose sole client above $10,000 he lists as AQMD.

And the agency’s records show a $38,750 contract last year with the firm for “board assistant services for Shawn Nelson.” It’s unclear why Bilodeau routes the money through a home business, rather than taking the payments directly.

Bilodeau receives the AQMD payments on top of the over $160,000 per year in total compensation he receives from the county.

More Gifts for Community College Vice Chancellor

Peter Hardash — the vice chancellor of business services at the Rancho Santiago Community College District – took some heat in December for receiving thousands of dollars in gifts from contractors who do business with the district.

In total, he had received nearly $3,500 gifts between 2013 and 2014, mainly in the form of golf outings and from district contractors. Meanwhile, those vendors reaped almost $12 million in contracts that Hardash recommended.

Last year Hardash outdid himself, receiving over $2,000 gifts, more than in each of the previous two years. Among the gifts he took were two tickets to the Toshiba Golf Classic at the Newport Beach Country Club valued at $120.

The architectural firm Westberg+White offered Hardash the Toshiba Golf Classic tickets over email on Sept. 3. Then on Sept. 14, Hardash submitted to the Board of Trustees a recommendation to increase the firm’s contract by $29,500.

Including last year’s disclosures, Hardash’s total reported gifts has reached almost $5,500. But that’s likely just a fraction of the gifts that he’s taken during his tenure at the district, given that he only started reporting gifts in 2013 after the state Fair Political Practices Commission fined him for not disclosing gifts from a district bond underwriter.

Other Official Gift Takers

Hardash isn’t the only local official to have enjoyed gifts. Two council members in Anaheim also took gifts from notable sources – Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman Jordan Brandman.

Tait received $1,885 in gifts from a host of interesting people and organizations – including Lakers basketball game tickets worth $200 from Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio show host. Hewitt made headlines late last year when he grilled presidential candidate Donald Trump about his knowledge – or lack thereof – regarding leaders of Middle-Eastern terror groups.

The NBA also gave the mayor All-Star Weekend Tickets worth $460. And John Marchiorlatti, vice president of industrial development and acquisitions at Shea Properties, a land developer, gave the mayor Ducks hockey game tickets worth $200.

Noble Ale Works, a brewery in Anaheim, gave Tait tickets to an anniversary tasting worth $180.

Brandman – who also works as a district director for Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) — received almost $1,300 in gifts from an array of people and companies.

Disneyland Resort gave Brandman a D23 Annual Expo ticket worth $49.75. He also received hundreds of dollars in meals from groups like the Pala Band of Mission Indians, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, the California Tribal Business Alliance, the lobbyist Townsend Public Affairs, the Orange County Taxpayers Association and water drilling company Cadiz Inc.

The Santa Ana Mayor and Other Delinquent Filers

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido’s disclosures always make for interesting reading. Sometimes, it’s Pulido’s undisclosed financial ties that are most revealing – like a land swap with a city contractor that earned him a $13,000 fine from the FPPC. The mayor amended his forms to include the trade after a Voice of OC article exposed it.

But Pulido has yet to file his latest disclosure and is already a week past the deadline. Late filing can result in penalties from the FPPC.

Pulido isn’t the only one late on his filings. Santa Ana councilmen David Benavides and Roman Reyna have yet to file. And in Garden Grove, Councilman Phat Bui also hasn’t filed yet.

That’s all for now. And as we said earlier, if you have occasion to peruse other Form 700s and find anything interesting, please don’t hesitate to send the info our way.

Reporter Thy Vo contributed to this article.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek