Photo by Jack GouldThe lobbying firm just hired to promote Huntington Beach's interests among state legislators in Sacramento is headed by a man who seven months ago was fined $32,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for laundering campaign contributions. The city council members who made the hire say they didn't know.
Donald K. BrOwn—he spells it with a capital "O" in the middle . . . whatever—secretly funneled money to two Chula Vista council candidates during that border city's 1996 election, according to FPPC investigators. BrOwn also failed to disclose his contributions to candidates for the state senate and assembly on a lobbying report to the secretary of state.
BrOwn is the chairman of Advocation Inc., a Sacramento-based lobbying firm that has become one of the state capital's most successful during the past 30 years. Clients include the Irvine Co., General Motors, Federal Express and Prudential Insurance Co., as well as many cities.
"I had no knowledge of Mr. BrOwn's violations or the FPPC's disciplinary action," insists veteran Councilwoman Shirley Dettloff. As a member of the search committee—along with council members Ralph Bauer and Debbie Cook—Dettloff interviewed BrOwn and voted with Bauer to recommend Advocation, 2-1. The council voted 5-2 (Cook and Connie Boardman opposed) to rubber-stamp the choice. "We hired [Advocation] after talking with many people who do business in Sacramento, people who gave us very good reports," said Dettloff. "If we had known, these [violations] certainly would have been things our committee would have discussed. But we're learning after the fact."
Huntington Beach relies heavily on state and federal grants—the city received some $30 million in such funding last year—and officials hope Advocation's expertise can help the city improve on that during these tough fiscal times.
But city hall has also been burdened with controversy and contentiousness for more than two years while Councilman Dave Garofalo has been under investigation by county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies for alleged conflicts of interest and fraud. Considering the nature of BrOwn's infractions and in the wake of his punishment, the City Council's choice is befuddling. Could it be that council members have become so accustomed to working amid the noxious exhaust of political impropriety that they just can't smell it anymore?
"We're learning this after the fact," Dettloff reminded. "These are not the first thoughts of someone who serves on [a search] committee."
It's not as though BrOwn's violations were a secret. They were prominently reported in the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune in March and remain on the FPPC website. The Weeklydiscovered them with a simple computer search.
Advocation represented Chula Vista and its redevelopment agency from 1990 to 1996 at $70,000 per year. But during the 1996 campaign, BrOwn evaded the city's contribution limit of $250 by using his family members, employees and even his auto mechanic to donate money to campaigns. Each check was for $99, enabling BrOwn to hide the names of the contributors since state law requires listing only those who donate $100 or more. These surrogates were then reimbursed by BrOwn for a total of $1,287.
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BrOwn could not be reached for comment, despite repeated telephone calls to Advocation's office in Sacramento. However, a stipulated agreement by BrOwn and the FPPC said that BrOwn told commission investigators he had no interests in Chula Vista at the time he laundered the donations. This turned out to be false, but since BrOwn did not make the statement under oath, he could not be prosecuted for perjury. Advocation is again representing Chula Vista under a two-year contract that will pay the firm up to $80,000 per year.
The FPPC levied fines of $2,000 for each of 16 violations—the highest possible, it said, because money laundering is among the most serious violations of the Political Reform Act of 1974. The commission wrote, "Laundering . . . deprives the electorate of essential information about who is supporting a candidate."
In that light, shouldn't a candidate's legal history be an important part of a search committee's inquiry?
"Maybe so," Dettloff allowed. "Those are not the first thoughts of someone who serves on a committee. Maybe in the future, they will be."