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Voting Rights Plaintiffs Poised to Scrutinize Tainted Council Campaign Contributions


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

March 30, 2018 -- A judicial “referee” has cleared the way for an attorney in a Voting Rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica to depose City Council members who received illegal campaign contributions from a local hotel.

On Tuesday Luis Cardenas, the retired judge overseeing discovery, ordered Council members Gleam Davis and Terry O'Day to return for depositions. Mayor Ted Winterer has already been questioned on the matter.

Cardenas also ordered the deposition of a school board member ensnarled in a separate conflict-of-interest controversy involving her husband, Council Member Tony Vazquez.

Outside attorneys representing the City argued to Cardenas that the new questioning was too far afield from the basis of the Voting Rights lawsuit and that the Council members had already been deposed. But Cardenas allowed the expanded round of depositions.

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“The referee admits it is hard to predict what useful information will be garnered during the subsequent depositions,” Cardenas said, in the case of O’Day and Davis.

“But the critical factor is whether the plaintiffs have a right to ask more questions. . . the law clearly provides they may do so.”

If it chooses, the City can go back to court to re-appeal.

Neither the City Attorney’s Office nor local School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez was available for comment.

Kevin Shenkman, the attorney representing the Voting Rights plaintiffs, said he will dig into whether Davis and O’Day were aware the Huntly Hotel had sent incumbents campaign contributions totaling $97,350 disguised under other names.

Last August, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined the Huntley Hotel $310,000 for disguising its campaign contributions in the 2012 and 2014 local elections ("Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Facing $310,000 Fine for Concealing Contributions in 2012 and 2014 City Elections," August 8, 2017).

The FPPC did not discuss whether recipients of Huntley’s contributions knew the true source, although it has the authority to do so.

On Tuesday, Santa Monica City Attorney Lane Dilig told the Council that violations of City election laws are misdemeanors, but that the one-year statute of limitations had already lapsed ("Santa Monica Council to Delve into Public Campaign Financing After Elections," March 29, 2018).

Shenkman said he wants to also question School Board member Leon-Vazquez about repeated votes which benefited vendors who employed her husband’s consulting firm ("SMMUSD Probes School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez Over Votes for Contractors Who Employed Husband," November 14, 2017).

The Los Angeles County District Attorney has launched a conflict of interest probe involving the couple.

Another round of questioning is likely now on deck for Council members O’ Day, Davis, Vazquez and Pam O'Connor, Shenkman said.

O’Connor, was ordered back by Cardenas in October after she walked out of questioning in her initial deposition. She is scheduled for a second round of questioning on April 23, Shenkman said.

Council members already have given depositions in the Voting Rights lawsuit. But Shenkman said he asked to re-question them following the new controversies.

On Tuesday, the council voted to explore ways of strengthening and protecting its City election laws, but took no action to delve further into Huntley and whether it had violated the City election code.

Instead, the Council is discussing “reciprocity" agreements allowing City Attorney Offices in other cities to conduct inquiries involving, as with Huntley, the bosses -- or city council members.


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