Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio is the subject of a formal complaint to state authorities that he’s been getting around contribution limits in his run for mayor.
Solorio has had to pay a state fine before, during his last run for City Council when he had his campaign pay for an apartment he rented as his residence. Solorio ultimately agreed to pay a $3,500 fine for misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.
In this case, it’s unclear whether state regulators will take any action before Election Day.
This latest complaint, to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, centers on Solorio’s alleged promotion of himself during the election using a ballot measure committee that is not subject to the $1,000 contribution limits that his mayoral campaign is.
Solorio’s ballot measure committee has – jointly with his mayoral campaign – funded door hangers at voters’ homes that feature both “Jose Solorio For Santa Ana Mayor” and a yes vote on California’s Proposition 20.
Solorio’s ballot measure committee also is funding the same field staff who are paid by his mayoral campaign, according to the complaint, which cites public financial disclosures.
The ballot measure committee has accepted checks of $9,000, $10,000, $15,000 and $23,000 from individual donors, including $9,000 from a towing company based in the city.
The ballot committee “was set up as a way to get around the legislative contribution limits, as he could collect money way above the limits for the committee – but it could only be spent to support or oppose ballot propositions,” states the complaint.
“He was using the campaign committee to pay a handful of field staffers – who he was also paying out of his Mayoral Campaign Committee, giving the impression that he was using the ballot committee to fund his Mayoral campaign, something that would be highly illegal.”
The complaint was filed last month by David De Leon, a former Santa Ana resident who ran against Solorio in 2016. The complaint’s allegations were disclosed to Solorio in Sept. 29 letter from state authorities.
In an interview Friday, Solorio said his ballot measure committee supports and opposes ballot measures, as it is allowed to do under the law.
“I’ve had the ballot measure committee for many years, and I’ve supported school construction bonds, I’ve supported veterans housing initiatives, I’ve supported Santa Ana charter ballot measure initiatives,” Solorio said.
“This year our ballot measure committee is actively supporting Prop 20 and Prop 24, and so the campaign activities from the ballot measure committee are in support of those two measures on the ballot.”
Asked about the door hangars – which promote his mayoral run and Prop 20 and were funded by his ballot measure and mayoral committees – Solorio emphasized the ballot measure committee is focused on supporting ballot measures.
“There are some materials on a door hanger that have information about Prop 20 and Solorio for Mayor, and materials and programs like that are paid for with resources from each committee,” Solorio said.
“We’ve done nice pieces of mail in support of those initiatives, and we’re doing door to door outreach also about Prop 20. and that’s what ballot meausre [committees] do, they support or oppose ballot measures.”
Solorio also said the complaint inaccurately claims he moved $50,000 from his ballot committee to his mayoral committee as a loan and disguised it to look like it was coming from himself.
“That’s incorrect. It’s a personal loan,” Solorio said.
Mayoral campaigns in Santa Ana are limited to contributions of $1,000 per donor, or $249 if the candidate wants to be able to take official actions as mayor that would benefit the donor financially.
State authorities with the California Fair Political Practices Commission usually decide within 14 days whether to investigate a complaint, but extended that period for the recent complaint against Solorio and hadn’t yet made a decision as of late last week.
Solorio previously agreed to pay a $3,500 fine for illegally using campaign money on rent for the apartment he moved to in July 2016 in order to qualify as a Ward 3 candidate in the election that November.
State investigators ultimately determined that Solorio, who is running for the Ward 3 council seat, broke state law because he used campaign funds on an apartment he was renting for personal use.
“On three different occasions, Solorio used campaign funds totaling approximately $2,866 to pay part of the rent for the months of August, September, and October 2016 for an apartment where he maintains that he lived and worked on his campaign,” the FPPC wrote in its stipulation of facts.
“By using campaign funds in this way, Solorio received a substantial personal benefit for expenditures that were unrelated to a political, legislative, or governmental purpose.”
When initially questioned by a reporter about it in 2016, Solorio said he was using part of the one-bedroom apartment as his campaign office, and cited a 24-year-old FPPC advice letter that he claimed gave him the go-ahead to use campaign money for a portion of the rent.
However, the advice letter stated that in order for such an arrangement to be legal, there had to be two separate leases – one for the campaign office and another for the living quarters. A lease document obtained by Voice of OC from another source showed he was personally leasing the entire apartment.
Voice of OC’s reporting prompted one of Solorio’s opponents in the Ward 3 race – De Leon – to file a complaint with the FPPC alleging a violation.
A few days later, Solorio personally reimbursed his campaign for the rent and said he’d stop using campaign funds for it.
Before the 2016 settlement, Solorio was facing a fine of up to $5,000 per violation.
After the settlement, Solorio issued a statement emphasizing that he spent the campaign funds based on his attorney’s advice, and ultimately settled the FPPC case for less than the full possible fine.
“The FPPC has agreed that since I relied on my campaign’s legal counsel regarding my office rent, reimbursed our campaign committee already, and never had any previous issues before the FPPC, that a reduced administrative penalty would address the complaint they received from one of my opponents,” Solorio said at the time.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].