Donations on Behalf of Supervisors Topped $100k This Summer

Three members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors solicited $111,417 over the summer for county projects and events ranging from a monument and a statue to an old-fashioned highway ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to documents filed with the county Registrar of Voters.

And one of the supervisors, Andrew Do, may have accomplished a first for California by getting a foreign government to make a so-called behested donation, said a spokesman for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

Mexico gave a $35,000 statue of independence leader Miguel Hidalgo to the county’s Mile Square Park in Westminster, according to documents filed by Do.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer brought in $41,417 worth of design work for his plan to create a monument to crime victims at the county’s Mason Regional Park in Irvine.

Tait and Associates, the firm owned by Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, is the construction manager for the project and donated $21,438.75 worth of staff time. Two other contractors also made in-kind donations. Landscape architects RJM Design Group gave $11,825 worth of work, and Leighton Consulting put in $8,153.28 in staff work.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett asked for and received a total of $35,000 from three donors for an Aug. 13 celebration of the opening of the 2.27-mile the La Pata Gap Connector Project, the county-built road extension connecting San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.

The donors included Outlets at San Clemente, $25,000. Outlets developer, Steve Craig, also was one of the event speakers. Huitt-Zollars Inc. of Irvine gave $5,000 at Bartlett’s behest and the city of Mission Viejo donated $5,000.

Under California law, lobbyists and wealthy political contributors can give big money and in-kind donations requested, or behested, by elected officials for their favorite charities or government-sponsored events.

It’s an added way for donors to gain influence with elected officials in addition to regular campaign contributions.

Behested Requests Increasing in Popularity

Under roughly 20-year-old rules adopted by the FPPC, elected officials must report donations of $5,000 or more made at their request for events such as job, senior or health fairs or to non-profit organizations, including schools and charities. The reports must be filed within 30 days of the donation being made.

There is currently no way to know how prevalent behested payments are throughout California because there is not a statewide database. However, establishing such a database might become part of the FPPC’s long-term plans, said agency spokesman Jay Wierenga.

In a recent high-profile case, behests showed up as part of the federal and FPPC investigation of former state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), who pleaded guilty June 21 to federal charges of accepting approximately $100,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents and a hospital executive. He is scheduled for sentencing in federal court Sept. 19.

As an outgrowth of the federal probe, the FPPC was investigating whether Calderon requested a total of $30,000 be donated to a nonprofit in 2012 and early 2013. That investigation was dropped after Calderon’s guilty plea.

The $5,000 limit for behested payments is more than twice the maximum donors are allowed to contribute to supervisors in campaign contributions under the county’s Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics or TINCUP law. That limit is $1,900 per supervisor candidate in each four-year election cycle.

Theoretically, donors who want to score points with supervisors also could donate $4,999.99 to events or charities at the supervisor’s behest and neither would have to publicly report it.

Bob Stern, who co-wrote the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act, but not the section on behested payments that was added later, said if they wanted to, supervisors could lower the $5,000 to $1,000 to create more transparency.

“The locals can reduce it (the $5,000 threshold) if they want to,” Stern said, “but none of them want to.”

Using Nonprofits

Bartlett and Spitzer have nonprofits handling the funds donated for their behest causes.

In Bartlett’s case, the non-profit was the Inside the Outdoors Foundation which told Voice of OC the event raised a total of $62,969 from 19 donors, including the $35,000 she behested. An additional 85 car show participants contributed $2,100 in participation fees.

Spitzer said in a text message that the $41,417 design in-kind donation will help establish an overall fundraising goal for the victim’s memorial. Another $21,047 has been raised for the memorial, according to Theresa Sears, who is handling the funds raised for the project and donated through the non-profit Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks. Sears is also an editor for Voice of OC’s opinion section.

Mexico’s donation of the Hidalgo statue completes Do’s three-statute project for Mile Square Park. The others depict former President Ronald Reagan and 13th-century Vietnamese General Tran Hung Dao. The FPPC is reviewing a complaint filed against Do by a campaign opponent this year in connection with how money for the other two statutes was handled.

Asked by Voice of OC if there were any restrictions on foreign governments making donations at the request of elected officials, FPPC spokesman Wierenga said nothing in state law prohibited it and in the nearly 20 years since reporting was required, there was no record “or indication” the FPPC has been asked about foreign donations.

However, because no one has reviewed all behest forms statewide, there is no way to know for sure.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the entire $41,417 worth of design work for crime-victims memorial champtioned by Supervisor Todd Spitzer inaccurately stated the source of those funds. We regret the error.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.