A community college trustee has one more chance to settle his problems with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Otherwise, he could face $66,000 in fines.
The state agency in charge of campaign finance compliance says Eric Payne, a two-term trustee with the State Center Community College District, violated 21 state laws for either misusing campaign funds or missing deadlines to file reports.
The commission will receive official notice of the violations and the fine at its May 16 meeting. Then, barring a settlement, the commission could vote to approve the fines at its June 13 meeting.
Payne in Default
The FPPC says Payne is in default, which means he has not responded to the agency’s inquiries into his alleged violations.
“It doesn’t get to default if people are cooperating,” FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said about such cases in general. “This is the final step.”
This contradicts what Payne told GV Wire publicly. He said he has been in “mitigation” talks with FPPC.
“I’ve been in communication with the agency. I look forward to bringing this long-standing item to an end,” Payne said.
Attorney Jim Sutton, a San Francisco-based expert on election law, says while details on Payne’s case are sparse, filing forms is a campaign basic.
“The fact that the FPPC is pursuing a default against Mr. Payne reveals that he has refused to settle the matter for a much lower amount. Either he and his treasurer are political novices who did not understand the rules, or they believe they are above the law,” Sutton said.
Allegations Against Payne
“My advice to Mr. Payne is that he throw himself on the mercy of the FPPC and try to re-open settlement.” — Election law expert Jim Sutton
Eighteen of the 21 allegations against Payne involve failing to file paperwork in a timely manner. The forms in question include yearly statements of economic interests, called a Form 700, which all candidates and elected members must file.
The remaining counts involve misusing $471.50 in campaign funds to purchase clothing for casual use, receiving prohibited cash contributions, and making prohibited expenditures.
The FPPC did not reveal the fine for each count. The maximum is $5,000 per count, meaning the agency did not fine Payne the full potential amount of $105,000.
Wierenga says if Payne does not pay his fines, the case could go to collections. The FPPC could place liens on property he owns and confiscate tax refunds in order to collect.
A check of county and state campaign finance websites show Payne hasn’t filed required paperwork stating who donated to his campaign or how he spent his campaign money. His most recent statement of economic interests was filed in 2016.
“In our experience, the FPPC is very non-partisan and pursues these types of enforcement matters all of the time against local officials across the state. Fines for not filing a Form 700 or campaign report are pretty formulaic; my guess is that the FPPC would have settled both matters for under $10,000,” said Sutton, who is not involved in Payne’s case.
What would Sutton tell Payne if he were a client?
“My advice to Mr. Payne is that he throw himself on the mercy of the FPPC and try to re-open settlement. He can raise funds into his campaign committee to pay the fine,” Sutton said.
“I’m very concerned and surprised.” — SCCCD Trustee John Leal
During the Dec. 11, 2018 board vote to select leadership, SCCCD Trustee Bobby Kahn brought up Payne’s previous ethical problems, including the pending FPPC problem. The board voted 4-3 to elevate Payne as vice president.
“It was right to allow him to move to the next level and prove himself,” said Trustee John Leal, who voted in favor of making Payne vice president.
Leal, however, is bothered by the latest news.
“I’m very concerned and surprised (about the FPPC proposed fines). My understanding that it was being taken care of,” Leal said.
A few weeks after the Dec. 11 meeting, the board voted against investigating back-and-forth allegations made by Payne and Kahn, each accusing the other of ethical lapses.
Perea Says Problems Unrelated
“It is not the board’s responsibility to ensure the other trustees are adhering to FPPC regulations.” — SCCCD Trustee Annalisa Perea
Trustee Annalisa Perea also supported Payne for vice president. She feels his FPPC issues are unrelated to his work on the board.
“It is not the board’s responsibility to ensure the other trustees are adhering to FPPC regulations. Any alleged wrongdoing as it relates to political finance reporting is independent from district-related matters and is between Trustee Payne and the FPPC,” she said.
Leal said he voted for Payne, in part because of board protocol. It is common for the secretary/treasurer — which Payne served as in 2017 — to be elevated to vice president. The board bypassed him in 2018.
“I wanted to give him a full year to regain the trust of the board as vice president. It would give him a year to clear up these problems. It is up to him to earn that respect to reach that next level (as president),” Leal said.
Leal left open the possibility that the board could sanction Payne at a future meeting. But first, Leal wants to investigate what legal options the board may have.