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In what could be a violation of state law, Santa Ana City Council candidate Jose Solorio has been using campaign funds to pay part of the rent for the apartment he’s been living in.

Solorio, a former Santa Ana councilman and state Assemblyman, until recently lived for years with his family in Ward 1, which is on the city’s south side. But this year he wanted to run for the Ward 3 seat in northern Santa Ana, where he wouldn’t have to face an incumbent.

So in order to comply with city rules on residency of council candidates, Solorio moved in July to an apartment in Ward 3, while his family stayed behind in the Ward 1 home he owns with his wife.

“Just yesterday I got a lease in a beautiful apartment off of North Grand [Avenue], and I’ll always be a couple of miles away from the rest of my family, unlike when I was in Sacramento,” Solorio said in a July 6 interview. “I’ll be living out of there” and campaigning out of there, he added.

Fast forward a couple months, and it turns out Solorio has been paying much of the rent with campaign money.

His first campaign finance disclosure, covering July 1 through Sept. 24, shows $1,867 in payments to the company that manages Solorio’s apartment, Far West Management Corp.

It is illegal to use campaign funds for personal expenses, including a candidate’s rent, according to the state agency that enforces campaign finance laws.

“One cannot pay their rent or mortgage with campaign funds,” said Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). He declined to comment specifically on Solorio’s actions, citing FPPC policy.

Solorio, meanwhile, says he’s legally in the clear because he’s following the FPPC’s guidance in an advice letter from 1992.

That letter states it’s illegal for a candidate and campaign to jointly lease a property. However, it says it could be legal if there are two leases – one for the part of the property being used for campaign business, and another for the personal residence.

“We are using campaign money for campaign office space. We are following the approach in the written advice letter from the FPPC that is specific to our campaign office needs,” Solorio said in a short statement.

But his previous descriptions of the apartment suggested that it only has one lease, which would seem to be a violation under the advice letter he cited.

Solorio avoided directly answering repeated questions regarding whether there are separate leases for the apartment. In an email Wednesday, he said: “I would be happy to meet with you next week to show you my leases.”

But Solorio did not answer a question about whether there have been separate leases in place since he started living in the apartment in July.

When it comes to campaign money being spent on property leased by a candidate, the state’s Political Reform Act is clear: “Campaign funds shall not be used for payment or reimbursement for the lease of real property ….where the lessee or sublessor is, or the legal title resides, in whole or in part, in a candidate.”

The FPPC’s campaign manual also says candidates “may not be a lessee or sublessor” to property leased by their campaign.

Voice of OC asked the FPPC whether campaign funds can pay some of an apartment’s rent if part of the apartment is being used for the campaign. In response, Wierenga cited the Political Reform Act section and said: “generally speaking, that would mean that type of arrangement isn’t allowed.”

Solorio is considered the frontrunner in the Ward 3 race, with strong name recognition from 15 years in elected office representing the city and nearly $190,000 in campaign cash left over from his prior elections. Solorio has said he plans to move over much of that money to his council race account.

Solorio’s most prominent opponents in the race criticized his use of campaign funds for the apartment rent and called for an FPPC investigation.

“It’s disheartening as a lifelong resident of Santa Ana, and as a candidate, to see Jose lead his campaign in this fashion,” said David De Leon. He said he submitted a complaint Wednesday morning to the FPPC about the apartment funding.

Patrick Yrarrazaval-Correa also called for state authorities to look into the situation.

“I’ve always questioned the morality of a person moving in to be able to run for a ward, but if there’s a legal issue, we’ve got to follow the rules here,” he said.

And Ana Urzua-Alcaraz suggested that Solorio’s approach goes against years of community efforts to improve transparency and accountability in Santa Ana.

“I’m concerned that Jose’s actions show a step backwards in government accountability,” she said. “We need public servants we can trust, those who look out for the wellbeing of Santa Ana residents first.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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