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PART I: The Sacrificial Gift
By Oliver Lukacs
On a January night two years ago, Bill Pietz pulled Woody Hastings aside after everyone had cleared out of the local Green Party headquarters on Pico Boulevard, and after receiving an assurance of secrecy, handed over a $10,000 check written out to the Green Party of Los Angeles County.
The $10,000 -- 20 percent of his annual income -- was a "sacrificial gift" Pietz believed should be given by any real Green "soldier" committed to moving the fledgling third party from the fringes of the hippy counterculture into mainstream legitimacy.
But Pietz couldn’t know that instead of empowering the party, his check would set into motion a series of events that would divide its ranks, spur the exodus of some of its top members and pit against each other the two city councilmen who had put Santa Monica on the Green Party map -- Michael Feinstein and Kevin McKeown.
An analysis by The Lookout of minutes and recordings from Green Party meetings and internal emails and interviews with key players provides an inside look at a maturing party struggling with its first real crisis. It also sheds light on the personalities and leadership styles of its top two local public figures.
For Feinstein, a leading party figure widely credited with building the largest Green constituency in the nation, the two-year crisis began with Hastings handing him the $10,000 check, which he deposited in a private credit union account that would be at the center of the controversy.
The crisis would climax earlier this year when county party treasurer Bob Morris -- frustrated by Feinstein's failure to open the bank books, as well as by the party's inaction -- filed civil and criminal complaints against the former mayor without the permission of the County Council and against the wishes of state party officials.
McKeown would also vote to send an email to elected Green officials nationwide warning them of the potential pitfalls of attending an unofficial conference in the Pico office organized by Feinstein, who had been bumped from Green officialdom.
As it turned out, the conference in February would mark Feinstein and McKeown's last public appearance together as fellow Green leaders in the storefront office Feinstein claims he used the money to fund and which played a key role in McKeown’s reelection to a second term on the City Council.
A little more than six months after he deposited the check into the credit union account without telling anyone, then Mayor Michael Feinstein found himself in a room packed with top Green Party officials waiting for him to explain what happened to the money.
The 20 top local and state party members, including official representatives of the state Green Party, had been summoned by County Council member Ginny Case, a volunteer Feinstein had recruited to help run the Pico office. Case had stumbled upon office-related financial discrepancies that led to the call for Feinstein to open his books.
"The GPLAC (Green Party of Los Angeles County) never received a copy of a lease agreement or contract for the space they were occupying,” wrote Case in a report detailing the discrepancies she discovered.
“At the same time, I became unclear as to where the GPLAC money was coming from and where it was going,” Case wrote. “Somehow the phone, electricity, and DSL was always on."
Also in the crowded room at the August 2001 meeting was a reporter from KPCC public radio, who had been tipped off by a disgruntled party member. The reporter's presence threatened to turn what could be a simple internal accounting glitch into an explosive public embarrassment for a party that prides itself on having nothing to hide.
Feinstein argued to keep the discussion closed to non-council members, a controversial motion that flew in the face of a key Green Party value -- transparency. When County Council member Sara Amir made the motion to enter into closed session, it ignited a discussion that pitted Green party values against political pragmatism.
“When you talk about these issues,” warned Amir, a California Environmental Protection Agency manager familiar with litigation, “think about the party and how much we are growing in this county and how some people would like to hurt us and want to see us go away.”
Deacon Alexander, a leader among the South Central Greens, made a loud call for transparency. Alexander would have been forced to leave the room along with a dozen others under a closed session because he was not yet on the County Council.
"I am afraid this is not the Santa Monica City Council," said Alexander. "This is not the Los Angeles City Council. This is a people's party, and God damn it, it seems to me that we have a right" to be present.
Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, a member of the County Council, then made a motion to keep the session open.
"This is not how the Santa Monica City Council does business," said McKeown, who had been Feinstein’s ally during his nearly three years on the council. "In fact any financial report by law has to be done in public. There may be legal decisions to be made after the report and it might be appropriate to go into closed session for that."
McKeown cited GPLAC bylaws that mandate meetings to be open to the public "unless confidential legal strategies or personnel issues are under discussion." While acknowledging that going into closed session was warranted, McKeown said that "to do so is a violation of Green principles and should be done only under dire circumstances. Given that this is a report, I don't sense dire circumstances."
McKeown’s motion passed 5-2, as well as a subsequent motion to allow the KPCC reporter to keep taping. They would be crucial decisions many party members say sparked the political firestorm that would envelope the party to this day.
"It was a fundamental moment," Feinstein, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, recently told The Lookout. "Kevin cast me out without a life preserver.
"Those kinds of votes let everything get out of hand," the former mayor said. "Legal, personnel, financial matters like that are exactly the kind of thing that we do in closed session on the (City) Council, and exactly what we should have done with the Green County Council that day."
Amir agreed. "This was exactly the kind of situation that was best dealt with in such a manner," Amir told The Lookout. "I was disappointed when Kevin, who is on a City Council and should have known better, voted against my motion."
Even some County Council members who voted to keep the session open would later acknowledge that "it was a mistake" made by an group of people new to political realities who were "just confused about Green ideals."
The group "didn't realize that the Greens were playing in the real world now, that it wasn't just their little club anymore," said Genevieve Marcus, a 13-year party veteran. "It was a mistake. None of this would have happened if it stayed in closed session. It could have been resolved in a much more Green way."
After the vote to keep the meeting open, all eyes were on Feinstein. Party members were counting on the mayor's report to clear up the financial confusion over unaccounted for donations to the county party -- including Pietz's $10,000 check -- and avert a potential public relations disaster.
But there were no books to open. Feinstein only made an oral report. The requested bank statements that detailed all transactions from the disputed account were mangled when they were emailed by his accountant, Feinstein said according to the minutes. He told the council that he was "reconstructing it and will have the data soon."
The balance, the mayor added, was paid by Save the Wetlands, the Mexican Green party and the Westside Greens.
The GPLAC, Feinstein said, used the office for free, which is why there was no lease for the county. "I gave the report," Feinstein said recently, "not because the county had jurisdiction or authority over the office or its bank account, but simply to straighten out the controversy."
The GPLAC had its own account, which was handled by a "nominal treasurer," who served in that capacity "on again/off again for three years" and who is now "completely inactive," Feinstein said according to the minutes.
The other account, Feinstein said, was a "Green Party" account authorized by the state party where he deposited the money from fundraisers he organized and the revenue from the subleases.
But Feinstein's oral report -- which failed to account for who donated the money and to whom it had been given, when it had been deposited and what it was specifically spent on -- didn't satisfy the County Council.
"The computer ate my homework just isn't flying for me," McKeown said at the meeting, adding that he was "really disappointed" with his Green City Council ally.
While McKeown was disappointed, Deacon Alexander urged the council to "file criminal charges against Feinstein," who "broke the law" when he deposited the $10,000 check into his "personal account."
"You cannot pocket or put into a personal account (a check) when it's made in the name of the Green Party," Alexander said at the meeting, his voice booming. "Once you stepped across that line you have broke the law. It's nothing personal. It's just the way it is, folks."
But McKeown, hoping Feinstein would come up with the paperwork, wasn't prepared to go that far.
"That office account I would not characterize in any way as a personal account, but I do hold all of us as Greens to higher standards, than other parties, of unflinching disclosure," McKeown said at the meeting. "So why I call upon Mike here, is to help give us a full, clear understanding of what has happened."
State party officials jumped to Feinstein's defense and outlined the state party's position to solve the matter internally -- a position the state party steadfastly maintains to this day.
"We need to be careful about what kinds of charges are thrown around," said John Strawn, who is now the state party spokesman.
"This is an issue of personalities to a great degree, and it has been for years,” Strawn said, referring to what some characterize as Feinstein’s freewheeling political style. “Those who have been around a long time really know that. I think wiser heads need to prevail here."
The state officials came in to “help calm down the situation and move forward as a consensus-based political party," said state party co-coordinator Michael Borenstein. "The request (for them to come) was made by many County Council members, including Feinstein.
“If Feinstein did anything illegal,” Borenstein said, “I doubt he would have asked for the likes of us to come down here and investigate it.”
Feinstein has said that he was first authorized by the state party to open an account, raise funds and run a Santa Monica office as early as 1999. The issue about the account being private, Feinstein said, was a "misnomer."
The account, he said, was opened at a local credit union because it was the same bank and the same type of account the county party had there since 1989.
Both accounts, as well as the checks associated with them, had the Green Party name on them but were opened with private social security numbers because such credit unions by law don't allow private business accounts, Feinstein said, noting that he has his own personal account at the credit union.
Strawn confirmed that the state party had indeed authorized -- "with a wink and nod" -- Feinstein to open the Green Party account and to use it to run the Pico office.
"The former treasurer said (to Feinstein), 'Call it a Green party account,' and he called it a Green party account," said Strawn. "And he developed an office that everybody shared, that everybody enjoyed, that everybody is responsible for," an office approved by "members of the State Coordinating Committee."
But some county party officials -- who were upset Feinstein had used county party money without their knowledge or consent -- had already prepared measures to prevent similar pitfalls in the future.
County Council member Ginny Case, who had called on Feinstein to make the records public, had drafted a proposal that gave the mayor a 30-day deadline to close the accounts, turn over any remaining funds and deliver all financial documents.
The proposal, which was approved 5 to 3 (Feinstein voted against and McKeown in favor), also included appointing a new treasurer who would make all necessary filings not made by Feinstein and who would be accountable to the county party.
The vote effectively stripped Feinstein of much of his official power, pitting the mayor and his followers against the majority of the County Council, including McKeown. Feinstein would continue to fail to provide the paperwork despite repeated requests by County Council members.
"There is no reason to treat me this way, when I have done so much to build this party, including back when many of those involved today were in their Green Party diapers," Feinstein told The Lookout in an exclusive interview in February. He added that he had filed the necessary paperwork with the IRS.On Tuesday: Hoping to move the local Green Party to the next level of professionalism and reclaim his house, Feinstein successfully lobbied state party officials to open an office in Santa Monica. Keeping the Pico storefront afloat would test his leadership and lead to a controversy that would divide the party's ranks.
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