For perhaps the first time, California's political watchdog agency is cracking down on an independent expenditure committee for illegally coordinating donations with a legislative candidate's campaign.
Joaquin Ross and an IE committee he helped run, Respondent Voters for a New California, have agreed to pay a $6,500 fine, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which will consider the settlement April 25.
Ross is the son of veteran Democratic political consultant Richie Ross, and the IE involved in the case was the recipient of funds raised by an official of the California Latino Legislative Caucus in hopes of boosting Latino candidates.
Ross did not immediately return a call for comment Monday and Gary Winuk, FPPC enforcement officer, said he could not discuss the case before FPPC action on it next week.
Independent expenditure committees are not bound by contribution limits that apply to donations made directly to candidates, but they are not allowed to coordinate campaign activities with the candidates they are supporting.
Capitol watchdogs have long suspected illegal coordination between IEs and candidates, but such accusations are hard to prove. The Ross case may be the first in which the agency has negotiated a fine over such a violation.
Ross acknowledged being the conduit for illegally spending $28,892 for three mass mailings in support of Luis Alejo during a primary election for an Assembly seat stretching from Santa Clara to Monterey counties.
Alejo, a Watsonville Democrat, beat two party challengers in the June 2010 primary for the open seat, and he won the general election by 25 percentage points.
Alejo, who is not accused of wrongdoing, said Monday that he is not aware of the FPPC case or details of the IE's spending. "I trust the FPPC's investigation was thorough and their judgment will be just," he said.
Under state elections law, Respondent Voters for a New California could not have donated more than $3,900 to Alejo's primary campaign unless it spent independently on his behalf, with no coordination between the two.
Ross violated state elections law by providing such coordination. He was Alejo's paid campaign manager and was a principal officer of the IE committee, according to the FPPC.
"While purporting to act as principal officer of Respondent Voters for a New California, respondent Joaquin Ross approved the committee's payment for the mass mailings," the FPPC said.
"He knew the payment amounted to an over-the-limit contribution to the Alejo campaign - by virtue of his dual role as agent for both parties - but he did not attempt to stop the mass mailings before they were mailed," the FPPC added.
Ross also concealed the illegal contribution from the public by failing to inform the IE's treasurer that the $28,892 was not a true independent expenditure, according to the FPPC.
"The pre-election campaign statement was filed before the election, and the contribution information should have been made available to the public before the election, the agency said.
Ross realized about May 4, 2010 that he had erred - before the fliers were sent - but he did nothing to stop the mailings, the FPPC said.
Respondent Voters For a New California was run by Ross and by Minnie Santillan, who was chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, vice chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, the FPPC said. Santillan declined comment Monday.
Mendoza "would make telephone calls on behalf of the committee and attend fundraisers for the committee, which is how the committee raised money," the FPPC report said.
Evidence sparking the allegations against Ross and the IE include various communications between Alejo, Mendoza and Respondent Voters for a New California, the watchdog agency noted.
On April 28, 2010, the FPPC said, Alejo stated in an e-mail to Ross: "I just got a text from Tony Mendoza that he hears IEs will drop for (a competitor) and some for me. He states in his text that I need many more good pictures on the website ASAP!!!"
"Later that morning," the FPPC added, "Joaquin Ross sent (Alejo) a reply e-mail about taking the photographs and stated, "I know what they're looking for."
Circumventing campaign limits "is a serious violation" of elections law that "provides an unfair advantage to one candidate over another in an election," the FPPC report said.
The proposed settlement, a $6,500 fine, consists of $3,000 for exceeding the state's campaign contribution limit and $3,500 for hiding the violation by filing a false pre-election campaign statement.
PHOTO CREDIT: Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, speaks during a session in the Assembly chambers in March. Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee