Liberate Laguna Backers File Campaign Finance Complaint

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Sponsors of the Liberate Laguna political action committee that invested heavily in the 2018 City Council election filed a complaint Nov. 15 against their ideological rival, Village Laguna, claiming that the nonprofit improperly took money from a former City Council candidate’s campaign committee.

Real estate investors Michael Ray, Sam Goldstein, and Cindy Shopoff, along with local artist Louis Longi, asked City Attorney Phil Kohn to investigate the transfer of $7,235 from Verna Rollinger’s 2016 campaign committee to Village Laguna. According to the letter addressed to Kohn and City Clerk Lisette Chel-Walker, Rollinger’s campaign transferred the money as a civic donation even though the Municipal Code prohibits a candidate-controlled committee from financially supporting or opposing another candidate’s bid for office.

Village Laguna also failed to report receiving the money from Rollinger’s committee in its required campaign finance filings, the letter states. Rollinger is now on the board of directors of Village Laguna.

“They have been around long enough to learn the rules,” the letter states. “Their failure to file basic campaign reports and to report accurately suggests gross negligence and even possibly intent to avoid disclosure for their benefit. This is very troubling.”

The complaint then claims that Rollinger’s committee tried to circumvent the Municipal Code by claiming it contributed funds to a nonprofit, which requires less stringent reporting than a donation to a political action committee. It’s unclear how the money was spent or what candidates benefitted from this donation, the letter states.

Village Laguna’s political advertising practices are also criticized in the letter, namely that the organization doesn’t follow the law with clearly displaying who paid for a particular mailer. State law requires that all political mailers need to display the entire name of the independent committee sponsoring them and that they’re not authorized by a candidate of the committee. 

A mailer endorsing Councilwoman Toni Iseman and landscape architect Ann Christoph in the November election apparently missed the mark by not including “Inc.” at the end of Village Laguna’s name, and did not include a lined box at the bottom of the page, according to the complaint.

Rollinger said Tuesday that she hadn’t read the letter submitted by Liberate Laguna’s sponsors, adding that similar accusations were made in an anonymous complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission in June. The FPPC declined to pursue the complaint after receiving Village Laguna’s rebuttal, she said.

“They have a right to question anything that they want to,” Rollinger said. “I’m getting ready to prepare a turkey dinner for my family, so I’m not really concerned with what Liberate Laguna is up to.”

The letter also claims that Village Laguna, Inc. has made contributions to its political committee through a different bank account, including more than $11,000 in June 2017, without disclosing the names of its donor sources.

“If Village Laguna has money stored in another location, those funds need to be included on its campaign reports,” the letter states. “If the funds are being solicited from other sources and being transferred to the committee checking account, then the sources of the funds should be disclosed.”

Under state law, donations of $100 or more should be itemized by political campaigns in their financial disclosures.

The City Attorney was asked to investigate all potential violations of state and local laws and impose late filing fines, administrative fines, civil penalties, and criminal charges where necessary, according to the letter. Ray and his supporters also asked Kohn to keep them updated on whether he plans to file a civil or criminal case regarding their complaint.

“They’re taking a second bite of the apple, hoping to sully our good name and all the good deeds that we have done through this town since 1972 so that they can develop at will and not have a Village Laguna to contend with,” said Johanna Felder, president of the Village Laguna board. “However, that is not going to happen because we are not going away.”

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