Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Mayor O'Connor Accused of Campaign Law Violations


October 6, 2014

A local group has accused Mayor Pam O’Connor of repeatedly violating both State and local law, by taking campaign contributions from developers after voting to approve their massive projects. It says that she could be liable both for civil, even criminal penalties, under the Santa Monica Municipal Code’s political funding laws.

The Santa Monica Transparency Project submitted a complaint to news organizations, including the Observer, and also to the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office last week. In the complaint, SMTP alleges that O’Connor committed 24 violations of the Oaks Initiative. It bars municipal officials from accepting campaign contributions from recipients of large financial benefits from the City--i.e., developers.

“I’m doing this as a part-time job,” O’Connor told the Santa Monica Daily Press in response. “I don’t have $90,000 to give to my campaign. I’m a single woman who works. I’m probably your average Santa Monican. I do the public service on the Metro Board. I find out that over a 10-year-period there were $4,000 worth, an average of $400 a year, of mistakes made and I didn’t have a professional treasurer but now I have a professional treasurer.”

“We will look at the names on the Oaks initiative log to see if these folks are listed,” O’Connor said. “Not necessarily all people affiliated with a project are barred from donating.”

In January, O’Connor refused to recuse herself from a vote on the Hines Project. A Texas based developer, Hines wanted to build hundreds of “Pack & Stack” apartments on the site of the old Papermate factory on Olympic. They called it by the curious name of “The Transit Village.” The Council approved the project, but then backed down when a successful local initiative almost put the matter before voters.

Mary Marlow is behind the SM Transparency Project. Marlow says she has found that O’Connor has repeatedly accepted campaign contributions from developer executives after approving their projects. For example, in 2004, O’Connor voted along with council to approve Hines’ Lantana Media Campus.

In March of 2008, she accepted a $250 contribution from Jeff Hines of Houston, TX, listed as a real estate professional with Hines, according to her campaign finance statements. Jeff Hines has been the president of the company since at least 1998. Within that same campaign disclosure period, she reported receiving five other $250 contributions from Hines executives.

Santa Monica Place is owned by Santa Monica-based mall operator Macerich Co, a large mall operator headquartered in Santa Monica. In 2007, she voted to approve a large scale redevelopment at Santa Monica Place, and in 2008 and 2009, she voted to approve facade improvements to parking garages, with the construction set to be done by Macerich. The council, including O’Connor, gave the city manager the right to negotiate a $10 million agreement with Macerich, the City’s record states.

In October of 2010, she accepted $250 donations from numerous Macerich executives. These included the company’s President Edward Coppola, according to information available at the California Secretary of State’s website.

In June of 2013, O’Connor voted to approve a housing project backed by Century West Partners, according to council minutes. That July, O’Connor accepted $325 contributions from Steve Fifield at FRC Realty LLC, a Chicago-based company.

According to Century West Partner’s website, CWP was also formed by Steve Fifield. 3 other FRC executives wrote $325 checks to her campaign, according to the campaign disclosure statement.

O’Connor conceded that perhaps Jeff Hines and Fifield should not have been allowed to contribute “assuming they are equity partners in their firms.”

“Just because someone is an executive employee of a company does not preclude them from contributing,” she said “I rely on the information provided by the City Clerk as to who is precluded — and who is not. We will check that list.”

O’Connor believes that the initiative only covers equity partners because they are the only ones receiving a direct benefit.

“Nobody’s taken it to court yet but then it would mean that every employee is precluded and you’re getting into peoples’ First Amendment rights to contribute to campaign,” O’Connor said.

And then of course there is the Elizabeth Riel matter. Riel, a Santa Monica resident was offered a post in City Hall but the offer was rescinded apparently after pressure from O’Connor, because of the former woman’s past political activities. Riel contributed to a 2006 campaign against O’Connor, and published local newspaper articles calling the City Council to the matt. She is now suing the City over alleged violations to her First Amendment and other civil rights

O’Connor has denied having any political or improper motivations in the Riel matter.

“This is political,” O’Connor said. “They only just look at me. They don’t look at anyone else and mistakes are made occasionally. If it’s $4,000 over 10 years that’s $400 worth of mistakes a year and I would argue that $400 a year is not really going to color the decision by most people and certainly not by me.”


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