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State Watchdog Drops Hammer on Fresno-Area Politicians

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Composite of FPPC logo and Terry Cox, Eric Payne, and Joshua Mitchell
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The state agency in charge of campaign finance enforcement has detailed its case to justify $66,000 in fines against community college board trustee Eric Payne.
Payne, a two-term trustee of the State Center Community College District, faces 21 counts ranging from failing to report campaign finance paperwork to misusing funds, according to documents from the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Payne is one of three Fresno County politicians against whom the FPPC will take action against at its June 13 meeting in Sacramento. Former Sanger mayor Joshua Mitchell and Central Unified Trustee Terry Cox also face penalties.

An FPPC spokesman said settlements are always possible, even up to the day of the commission meeting.

Payne Used Contributions for Clothing

In a 392-page document, the FPPC provides details and evidence into the charges against Payne.
Among the specifics, Payne failed to file semi-annual statements, failed to report contributions of $1,000 or more within 24-hours, and misused campaign funds.
The FPPC says Payne spent $471. 50 of campaign funds to purchase clothing for non-campaign purposes. Campaign law prohibits such purchases from election funds.
On Sept. 24, 2016, “Payne used the Committee’s funds to purchase several items of clothing from Nordstrom Rack: a pair of “casual twill chino” pants, a “sapphire solid” shirt, a “trim straight” shirt, and a “silver spun solid” shirt, among other items,” the report says.
When asked about the purchases by an investigator in December 2017, Payne said he needed the clothing for campaign events, “intended for his use at barbeques, coffee meetings, evening events, breakfasts.”
Asked if he needed the clothes because certain events had a dress code, “(Payne) stated that he was going to a gala this evening and that he did not want to wear tennis shoes and shorts.”
According to the FPPC, Payne said he was “committed to reimbursing his committee for that payment, but no reimbursement had been made as of the date of the interview.”

Payne Failed to Report Income

FPPC also cited Payne for failing to report a proper statement of economic interests, as required by law, with State Center. According to the staff report, Payne didn’t file annual reports covering 2012-2015 until last month. He filed his 2016 report more than six months late.
He filed his 2017 report on time, but was a month late for the 2018 report.
In the economic form, Payne indicated he had “no reportable interests to disclose.” However, the FPPC said he failed to disclose income in 2012 for a position with the “Housing Authority Foundation.”
Also, in 2016, Payne did not report his income as an independent contractor with the environmental consultant group Toure Associates.
On its website, Toure Associates says it provides “public agencies and private development clients throughout California … with environmental, research, regulatory permit applications, and natural resource management services.”

When it came to a possible settlement, the commission noted, “At various points, Payne engaged in the process but ultimately failed to complete the terms of the settlement offer.”
The report also noted nearly 60 instances between August 2017 and May of this year that the FPPC made contact or attempted to contact Payne regarding his campaign finance reporting problems.
When it came to a possible settlement, the commission noted, “At various points, Payne engaged in the process but ultimately failed to complete the terms of the settlement offer.”
An FPPC spokesman said settlements are always possible, even up to the day of the commission meeting.

Total Fine Lowered From $105,000

The maximum penalty levied by FPPC could have been $105,000 ($5,000 per violation). FPPC staff recommended the lesser amount of $66,000.
Payne received the maximum penalty for the six counts of failing to file his statement of economic interest, and for misusing campaign funds. The other 15 counts drew fines of $1,000 to $3,000.
In determining the fine amount, FPPC said:
“Payne had been a candidate before, he is currently in office, and he was and is aware that the (Political Reform) Act required disclosure of the Committee’s campaign activity.”
FPPC also said that using campaign funds to purchase clothes “violates the trust of the contributors giving to that campaign.”
The commission used similar cases to determine the fine amount.
Payne’s case began with a complaint to the FPPC filed by an associate of Pao Yang, whom Payne defeated in the 2016 election.
Payne offered no new comment regarding his fines when contacted Tuesday.

Cox Failed to File Statements

Cox, a five-term trustee at Central Unified, failed to file three semi-annual statements, detailing campaign activity in 2016 and 2017, according to FPPC.
Cox and campaign treasurer Julie Lim could not reach an agreeable settlement with the commission, the FPPC said. The agency proposes a $9,000 penalty for three counts.
In comments to GV Wire last year, Cox said inexperience led to the late filings.
FPPC dropped two counts of failing to file 24-hour contribution reports when Cox provided evidence that she, in fact, did so.

Former Sanger Mayor Accused of Conflict of Interest

Mitchell faces a $6,000 fine for voting on contracts that benefited companies he had a financial interest in.
Mitchell resigned from office in 2015, saying at the time it was for personal reasons, and not for anything improper.

Mitchell also faced FPPC trouble in 2014, paying a $7,000 fine.
The former mayor owned the WLD landscaping company. In 2011, the Sanger City Council approved a program that waived fees for homebuilders that purchased 30% or more of their supplies from Sanger businesses.
Evergreen Communities took advantage of that program for its Royal Woods neighborhood. They contracted with WLD for their landscaping needs. Mitchell’s company received more than $10,000 per year in 2012 and 2013 from Evergreen.
FPPC accused Mitchell of failing to report that income on his statement of economic interests.
The watchdog agency also linked Mitchell to another landscaping company he founded, JDM Enterprises. JDM also worked for Evergreen, and Mitchell received at least $10,000 in consulting fees from JDM that was not reported on his statement of economic interests.
The FPPC board will finalize the penalty, agreed to by Mitchell, at the June 13 meeting.
Mitchell also faced FPPC trouble in 2014, paying a $7,000 fine. He did not return GV Wire’s request to comment.

David Taub has spent most of his career in journalism behind the scenes working as a TV assignment editor and radio producer. For more than a decade, he has worked in the Fresno market with such stops at KSEE-24, KMJ and Power Talk 96.7. Taub also worked the production and support side of some of TV sports biggest events including the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and NASCAR to name a few. Taub graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in communications and political science. You can contact David at 559-492-4037 or at Send an Email