Campaign complaints have been filed in the LB mayoral race—but they rarely result in fines
Residents have filed campaign-related complaints against both of the city’s candidates for mayor in November’s election, but the process to investigate and resolve these types of complaints is extremely slow—and rarely results in tangible consequences if the allegations are found to be valid.
The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating a complaint against Councilmember Suzie Price, accusing her of using city resources, including promoting a campaign website in a city newsletter, in her quest to become mayor. Meanwhile her opponent and colleague on the City Council, Councilmember Rex Richardson, was accused in July of using yard signs that looked similar to Price’s, but the state agency appears to now be investigating other parties for the alleged violation.
The complaints against Price and Richardson were filed by supporters of their opponent, a practice experts say is common in heated races.
A well-funded campaign could even go so far as to assign someone to the role of essentially auditing its competition and reporting the first slip-up they find, said Matt Lesenyie, an assistant professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach.
Successfully having the FPPC open an investigation into your opponent can help move the needle in a local race that hasn’t garnered a lot of attention, and it can hurt an opponent because they’re “under investigation,” Lesenyie said.
In early August, a resident who supports Richardson accused Price and her campaign of using public funds by sending a link in newsletters through her city account that redirected to her campaign website, and using a pop-up shade structure that had the same website printed on it while attending city events.
The website had been called into question earlier this year when it was found on Price’s city website, and was quickly taken down. Price’s staff said earlier this year that the link had been home to an informational page about the city that Price had paid for and maintained since 2014, but was recycled when she established her mayoral campaign page.
In a statement, Price’s campaign spokesman, Orrin Evans, reiterated that it was a mistake. The website has been taken down to “ensure no more unintentional references to it appears,” the use of the shade covering, which Evans said is old, was a simple mistake.
The complaint was filed by Naida Tushnet, a supporter of Richardson and a member of Women of Long Beach, a Long Beach political group that has also endorsed Richardson. Tushnet said she’s seeking a public apology and the FPPC to act quickly and issue a resolution before the Nov. 8 election.
The FPPC acknowledged that it’s investigating the issue in a letter that Tushnet provided to the Post and other media outlets. The letter gives the standard caveat it has “not made any determination about the validity of the allegations you have made or the culpability, if any, of the person identified in the complaint.”
Jay Wierenga, a spokesperson for the FPPC, said Wednesday that there are open investigations into both Price, as well as allegations against Richardson, who had a complaint filed against him in July over the fact that yard signs supporting him were the same red and blue colors as Price’s, and they contained no disclosure of who paid for them.
In the Richardson complaint, the FPPC appears to have absolved Richardson and his campaign of being the origin of the signs and is instead investigating to find out who produced them. The complaint against Richardson was filed by a resident who is supporting Price.
Danielle Cendejas, a consultant for Richardson’s campaign, said they quickly responded to the complaint filed in July and told the FPPC they did not pay for the signs in question.
“The ones we did pay for are green and blue,” Cendejas said.
Opening an investigation is not automatic, according to Wierenga. They’re first reviewed for evidence and facts supporting the allegation before the commission decides to launch an investigation.
“So if a complaint doesn’t have enough to warrant opening an investigation, a complaint is dismissed,” Wierenga said. “If there is enough to warrant opening an investigation, one is opened.”
Closing an investigation can take a few weeks or a few years, Wierenga said. The average time for the commission to close an investigation is 114 days.
A complaint filed against Tushnet’s group in November 2020 for allegedly not filing required documents is still an open investigation, according to the FPPC. Tushnet said that was around the group’s founding and that she was unaware of the case filed against the group.
Rise in complaints
Long Beach has seen a rise in recent years of reported violations of state election laws, with dozens of local complaints being processed by the FPPC, a state commission that seeks to ensure a level playing field for candidates seeking office.
The process of investigating these allegations of wrongdoing can take years, and they rarely result in any tangible punishment, such as a fine.
The FPPC is tasked with enforcing the Political Reform Act that governs political campaigns, lobbying and conflict of interest laws. Complaints can be submitted on an online portal by anyone who believes a law has been violated.
Since 2002, close to 300 local complaints have been submitted to the commission, with 84 cases being resolved but just 17 resulting in penalties. While running afoul of FPPC can result in penalties of up to $5,000 per day, the largest penalty assessed over the past 20 years in Long Beach was $600.
Over the past five years the FPPC has averaged issuing penalties in about 20% of cases it has investigated, which is similar to the rates seen in Long Beach.
Another 84 cases were resolved with letters warning the respondent that their actions violated the law but because they eventually came into compliance or the commission acknowledged that they were a political novice or had no awareness of the laws, their cases were closed without penalty.
Most complaints don’t make it into the investigative stage and are thrown out because they lack supporting evidence. Statewide, in 2021, the FPPC handled 1,590 enforcement cases with 266 cases resulting in fines.
Seven of the nine current city councilmembers, and the mayor, have had a complaints lodged against them at some point, according to FPCC data.
When does a violation occur?
There are a variety of ways that a candidate, campaign, elected official or even a resident can incur a violation and be reported to the FPPC. Not filing campaign fundraising documents by required deadlines is a common violation. Candidates who raise funds and don’t spend it all must file periodic disclosures or risk violating the law, even if they lost their race.
Not including campaign information at the bottom of advertisements or yard signs that clearly let residents know who paid for them, whether online or in print, is also a violation.
Mayor Robert Garcia and his committee supporting the permanent extension of Measure A ran into this issue in 2020. The campaign ran ads in local newspapers without information of who paid for them, and the campaign also missed a deadline for disclosures by 11 days. The commission closed the case and issued a warning letter.
Elected officials and others doing city business also have to be mindful of the value of the gifts they receive. In 2010, then-state Sen. Alan Lowenthal was cited for Grand Prix tickets he accepted from the Port of Long Beach that exceeded the $420 limit that was in place at the time. He received a warning letter as well after paying the difference (at least $960) to bring the gift under the allowable limit.
Lesenyie, political science professor, said it’s normal for campaigns to incur violations, or at least have them alleged. The reasons can range from sloppiness sometimes brought about by underfunded campaigns or first-time candidates, other times it can be by design, Lesenyie said.
“Some people just have poor accounting, but some are deliberately designing their campaign to get all the benefit of being on that line and willing to take some of the bad that comes with it.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information about statewide cases that resulted in penalties by the FPPC.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.