Party of One?
By Oliver Lukacs
By February 2003, after nearly two years of agonizing over City Councilman Michael Feinstein's unwillingness to account for the $10,000 he had allegedly misappropriated, Green Party officials were at a standstill.
The county party had decided to “move on” by leaving the Pico office that was at the center of the controversy. Bill Pietz, who had donated the money, vowed not to take any legal action. And the state party decided it would be “bad politics” to do anything more than disseminate a letter disassociating itself from Feinstein.
Fed up with the stalemate, county party treasurer Bob Morris decided to take matters into his own hands.
Under state law, Morris discovered, a treasurer must account for money raised in the name of the organization, and after receiving a copy of the $10,000 check from Pietz addressed to the “GPLAC” (Green Party of Los Angeles County), he decided, “It needed to be done.”
Feinstein had ignored repeated requests to turn over records from the Green Party account the former mayor had opened in his name with the blessing of the state party. Only a judge, Morris decided, had the power to pry open the bankbooks.
“I have no personal vendetta against Mike (Feinstein), but that money didn’t belong to him. It wasn’t his to spend” Morris recently told The Lookout. “What happens to him is out of my hands. If Mike doesn’t have anything to hide, then everything will go away.
“I find it disturbing that the state party has done nothing for years and has continued to do nothing,” Morris said. “‘Oh, we can’t do anything at all because it might bad?’ That’s not a Green thing to do. If I wanted to hide facts, I’d be a Republican.
“It was obvious to anybody who believed in Green values there was overwhelming evidence that serious violations might have occurred,” Morris said.
In late February, Morris filed a criminal complaint with the Santa Monica Police Department charging Feinstein with stealing the check. As is common practice when a charge involves a City official, the complaint was forwarded to the District Attorney. Morris also filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
While Morris told no one about the criminal complaint, he said he decided to file with the FPPC after consulting with the government agency, three lawyers, and state treasurer Mike Wyman. They all agreed that it was his legal responsibility to file.
“To the best of my knowledge, no one's under any legal obligation to file a complaint with the FPPC,” Wyman said at a meeting of state officials in January, according to meeting minutes. “But,” he added, “there were checks made out to GPCA (Green Party of California) and GP of LA, (which) means that somebody is liable.”
Morris’ decision to act without the county’s authorization would prompt his removal as treasurer and trigger Pietz’s resignation from the Green party. But some party members would defend Morris’ actions.
“Someone had to step up,” said Ginny Case, the County Council member who originally discovered financial discrepancies that led to suspicions about Feinstein’s money management. “I probably would have done the same thing.
“There had come a point when we completely exhausted dealing with Mike, and when the check came out, there was no way to deny that something very wrong had happened to county council,” Case said.
The filing, she added, was “a big step.” Because Feinstein was like a father figure for the local party, she compared it to “calling the police if your parents were dealing drugs.”
City Councilman Kevin McKeown, the state representative of the county Greens, was the first person Morris told about his plans to file a complaint with the FPPC. McKeown -- who did not know about the criminal filing -- neither tried to dissuade him, nor would he inform the County Council of the impending action against his City Council ally.
“It wasn't my job to notify the Council County of what (Morris) was going to do,” McKeown told The Lookout. “It’s not like the County Council could have talked Bob out of this. There was no decision to be made.”
Telling only the county coordinators, but keeping the County Council in the dark, McKeown authored an email informing the State Party of the filing, a step state officials had been reluctant to take.
“We know there is trepidation at the state level about this action,” wrote McKeown, “but Los Angeles feels more than adequate time has passed for other options to be explored. Continued delay and denial about The Check no longer seem viable, on legal, ethical and purely practical grounds.
“Representing almost 30,000 Greens, the GPLAC finds itself unable to raise funds and serve our function, given the mistrust in Green finances the recent news stories have spread," McKeown wrote, referring to articles that had appeared in local papers. "Our reputation as a party of clean finances, transparency and accountability is at stake.
“Even absent a strict legal requirement to file,” McKeown wrote, “many in LA are convinced reporting the incontrovertible facts about this single aspect of what has happened is simply the right thing to do… We do not ask for permission,” McKeown concluded. “We ask for your support as we do what we must. ”
The email would reassert McKeown’s objections to Feinstein’s activities, which had “vanished” just before the mayor pro tem’s 2002 reelection bid. In fact, at a November County Council meeting shortly after his reelection, McKeown had invited Feinstein, who he hoped to succeed as mayor, to make an offer extending the county’s occupancy of the Pico office.
When Feinstein presented the offer, “there was much general concern,” according to meeting minutes. County Council members Denise Robb and Pietz “declared that the council must break from the office and move on.” Morris argued that the local party “made no use of the office.”
McKeown was virtually alone in wanting to stay. If the offer “was for free rent he thought that was a good idea,” according to the minutes.
Within a month, McKeown once again would reverse his position.
“You could see a sharp twist just within a few weeks,” said Coby Skye, a County Council member.
In December, McKeown would vote with the County Council to “move out completely” from the Pico storefront and set up a virtual office.
On December 10, 2002, Mayor Pro Tem McKeown sat on the City Council dais in front of a packed chamber. The City Council was about to cast a vote that could make or break his dream of becoming the next Green mayor of Santa Monica.
McKeown felt he deserved the post. He had served several months longer than Richard Bloom, the only other member of the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) council majority who had not held the mostly ceremonial post. In addition, a month earlier, McKeown had finished a close second in a field of nine contenders vying for three open council seats.
Afraid he would not have the support to serve the full two-year term that his Green predecessor and political benefactor Michael Feinstein was wrapping up that night, McKeown was willing to compromise. He would share the term with Bloom.
Councilman Ken Genser opened the nomination process by making a motion to split the two-year term between the two, but the motion failed for lack of a second.
Councilman Herb Katz then nominated Council member Pam O'Connor for two years. But O'Connor, who had already served two separate one-year terms, declined to serve when others had not had the chance. Instead, she nominated Bloom.
McKeown turned toward Feinstein, his Green party colleague, who had used the post to train the national spotlight on both the Green Party and a city that prided itself on its sustainable policies.
“Are there any other nominations for mayor?” asked City Clerk Maria Stewart, who was running the meeting until a mayor was elected.
McKeown stared at Feinstein in apparent anger and disbelief. Feinstein leaned forward and looked down the dais to the right.
“No other nominations for mayor,” Stewart said.
Feinstein and McKeown looked to the left. Seeing nothing, McKeown turned back to Feinstein, who double-checked the dais to the right.
“I will call the roll for Council member Bloom to be mayor for two years,” Stewart said.
McKeown looked at Feinstein, then at the audience, then leaned back.
Bloom would be elected with a 6 to 0 vote (Katz abstained). McKeown would be reelected to two more years as mayor pro tem, with Katz and Councilman Bob Holbrook abstaining.
Party members would point to Feinstein’s failure to nominate McKeown as the critical turning point in their relationship.
“He got screwed out of that position,” said County Council member Skye. “Kevin was apparently very upset by this and was ready to move out of the (Pico) office. There was no sign prior to that time that Kevin was supporting a move out of the office.”
“Mike and I have been good friends for along time,” McKeown told The Lookout. But, he added, the two “haven’t spoken for months.”
Asked if that night played a role in his about-face concerning the office, McKeown responded, “I go on with my life.”
Shortly after McKeown failed to win the nod as mayor, he would take part in the State Party’s efforts to undermine Feinsein’s dream of putting the Pico storefront at the center of national and international Green politics.
In January McKeown raised no objections to sending a state letter that would thwart the Federation of the Green Parties of the Americas from accepting Feinstein’s offer to use the storefront for the international party’s Western Hemispheric office network.
The following month, McKeown was instrumental in a decision by the State Party to author a second letter. Sent without the necessary 80 percent consensus, the letter warned national officeholders of the potential pitfalls of attending a conference at the Pico office that Feinstein had been planning for two years, according to minutes.
“I feel very uncomfortable with what the office had brought upon the party, very uncomfortable circumstances,” McKeown told The Lookout. “We were very concerned the people would get pulled into this rather murky situation.”
McKeown would be the welcoming speaker at the conference.
When Pietz, who had donated 20 percent of his income to the party, found out what Morris had done, he snapped. After nine years of fighting for a cause he believed in, Pietz resigned from every level of the Green Party -- local, state, and national. He would no longer be a registered member of the party he helped build.
“There is no party I believe in anymore,” said Pietz, who is now registered as “decline to state,” a status with no party affiliation.
“I’ve been hacking away for two years trying to make something good out of this,” said Pietz, “I just reached the end of my rope.
“Resigning was the only thing I could think of that could possibly send a message -- if we’re going to have a grown-up-for-real organization, people have to respect the decision of a group, or you got no group.
“Mike (Feinstein) disregarded and effectively sabotaged the respect needed for decision-making bodies doing the lone ranger bit,” Pietz said. “Exactly what Bob (Morris) did.”
Pietz’s final communication to Morris was an email that simply said:
Morris’ action, and the letters the state party began generating in January 2003, only served to drive the wedge deeper between Feinstein and his followers and the official party he helped build. The letters in particular caused many party officials to choose sides.
While McKeown moved up to become a state representative for the County Council, Feinstein resigned from some of his key posts at the local, state and national levels in 2002, when he was still Mayor of Santa Monica.
Feinstein handed in his walking papers after the state party “betrayed” him in the legal negotiations -- when state officials refused to acknowledge their role in setting up the office -- and the local party began to publicly accuse him of stealing Pietz’s $10,000 check.
“The dysfunctional mishandling of the Santa Monica office told me that my time with the Green party would be better spent not working within the bureaucracy that just betrayed me,” Feinstein said. Instead, the former mayor would “apply my scarce time to building the party that I had founded.”
Officially, Feinstein, who had put Santa Monica on the national map as a Green party bastion -- attracting the attention of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- would step behind the scenes.
The former mayor would serve in an advisory capacity on the national level, return to work on the state and national parties’ newsletters and attend to the Green Web sites he helped create to track voter registration, Green candidates and election results.
Despite holding no official position, Feinstein also continued building the party. He organized the Green officeholders conference that would kick off an international network of elected officials. He also continued cultivating a project to link the Federation of the Green Parties of the Americas to the U.S. Greens with his Pico office, which was to be one of a “tri-office network” spanning the Western Hemisphere.
“For anyone who thinks I took my marbles and left, that I was hurt by what happened, I’m still deeply committed to creating a viable third party,” Feinstein said. “This situation has not dissuaded me from that conviction.”
His activities alarmed the state party.
“Feinstein is no long mayor now and he started to reassert his activism as a GP member on virtually every level, local, state, national and international,” state party treasurer Mike Wyman said at the state party meeting in January 2003.
Feinstein’s actions, particularly his alleged use of the Pico office to raise funds, worried state party members, who wrote several letters expressing their concerns.
But the response to the letters only reinforced Feisntein’s influence in the party.
The letter warning elected officials about attending the officeholders conference was largely ignored, with atendees from as far away as Sweden and Hawaii showing up. Another letter, intended to thwart the Federation of the Green Parties of the Americas’ move into the office, was also “totally ignored,” according to the minutes from the January meeting.
“We were told that the GPCA's letter was totally ignored by the Federation,” said Jo Chamberlain, a state coordinator. “I know these people, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to drive down to that office next week and see some of them working in there.”
In fact, some high-ranking party members came to Feinstein’s defense, highlighting the widening rift that had now reached from the local grassroots to the highest levels of the party.
In an email to national Green party officials, who are the liaisons to international Green groups, State party coordinator Ricardo Newbery defended Feinstein’s credibility and criticized the state party’s handling of the controversy.
“Concerns over the disposition of funds and the internal accountability of its leadership may be warranted,” Newbery wrote, “but the near-hysterical crisis over fears of heavy FPPC sanctions (caused by Feinstein’s fundraising) seem excessive and unwarranted.”
Nearly two years after the funding controversy embroiled the nation’s largest state and local Green parties in their biggest crisis, the sleepy storefront on Pico Boulevard is still standing and Michael Feinstein -- who has yet to turn over the books -- still holds the key.“The Pico office is off the table for the moment,” State Coordinator Michael Borenstein said, “but that office is going to continue haunting us for some time.”
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