Complaint to California Fair Political Practices Commission Asks for Investigation of Mayor Breeden After City Attorney Brushes Aside Questions
Recently, we received a reader tip that Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden’s ownership of a local advertising publication, The Swap Sheet, could have created a financial conflict of interest in her vote to end a popular home improvement financing program. Mayor Breeden voted to shut down homeowner access to the popular Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program on October 4, while her publication appears to receive significant ad revenue from realtors opposed to PACE.
After investigating this tip, we were told by an attorney representing Ridgecrest that the Mayor was not conflicted when she cast her vote, and that the “reasons” she wasn’t conflicted would be kept secret from the public.
So, on November 13, 2017, we filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). You can view a PDF of our complaint text here.
Since May 2016, we have been probing attempts by real estate lobbyists to kill PACE — a popular program for homeowners that offers up-front financing for energy efficiency, water conservation, renewable energy and seismic improvements that is paid back through property tax assessments. In August 2016, C&BP filed twin lawsuits against the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Bakersfield City Council to get to the bottom of questions about how lobbyists got local officials to kill PACE in both jurisdictions.
In the case of Ridgecrest Mayor Breeden, we have learned that the Mayor is owner and a director of The Swap Sheet. The publication appears to receive a major portion of its advertising revenue from local realtors. And, as our tipster asserted, The Swap Sheet is an affiliate member of the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors.
On Oct. 26, C&BP emailed a letter of inquiry to Ridgecrest City Attorney Keith Lemieux asking for his help to clarify the information we received. Mr. Lemieux, it turned out, is a partner in the firm of Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill, which handles legal matters for the City of Ridgecrest. The city itself has no staff attorney.
You can read our letter of inquiry to Mr. Lemieux here, in which we also asked questions about Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mowser. We have not filed a complaint against Mr. Mowser.
City Attorney Says No Conflict of Interest
Mr. Lemieux’s law firm colleague, Lloyd Pilchen, responded by telling us:
“The conflict of interest rules involve considerations which the City Attorney’s Office may analyze and advise the City on. But such analysis is protected from disclosure from the attorney-client privilege. In this case, we find nothing that rises to the level of a conflict of interest. C&BP is free to seek its own legal advice on this issue, and we thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
If we understand that correctly, Mr. Pilchen is saying that his law firm (acting as City Attorney for Ridgecrest) “may analyze and advise” the City of Ridgecrest on conflict of interest allegations. Yet if they did in this case, they won’t tell us because their “analysis is protected from disclosure.” Besides, there’s “nothing” there.
Pilchen also made the same assertion to the The Daily Independent, which reported him saying that the issue of conflict of interest was not raised prior to the vote because he and Lemieux thought there was no conflict.
After filing the FPPC complaint, we learned that Mayor Margaret “Peggy” Breeden did file a Form 700 Statement of Economic Interest that shows her investments, property and income, including ownership of Swap Sheet. However, the form only strengthens the concern about a conflict on the Mayor’s vote to kill PACE, as it shows more than $100,000 in income from the Swap Sheet, much of that presumably coming from realtor ad revenue.
According to the California Political Reform Act of 1974, a public official has a disqualifying conflict of interest in a governmental decision if it is foreseeable that the decision will have a financial impact on his or her personal finances or other financial interests. In such cases, there is a risk of biased decision-making that could sacrifice the public’s interest in favor of the official’s private financial interests. To avoid actual bias or the appearance of possible improprieties, the public official is prohibited from participating in the decision.
The question is — would Mayor Breeden’s vote to continue PACE in Ridgecrest have had a “financial impact” on her financial interests? Should she have been “prohibited in participating in the decision” to avoid “the appearance of possible improprieties”?
We trust that the FPPC can determine if Mayor Breeden was acting improperly, even if the City’s attorneys cannot.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.
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