A series of Fair Political Practice Commission complaints against former California City council members were closed at the end of December, with either a warning letter or a requirement to pay a small fine.
California City resident Tami Johnson filed sworn complaints against councilmembers Ron Smith and Bill Smith and then-Mayor Pro Tem Don Parris in June of last year, stating that they failed to to report financial interests on as required under California’s Political Reform Act. The FPPC complaint also alleged corruption when it came to the city’s budding cannabis industry.
The FPPC opened the cases under statement of economic interest non-report, as Johnson’s complaint stated the councilmembers failed to disclose income or financial interests as required under California law for elected officials.
Johnson also filed a complaint against Police Chief Jon Walker alleging failure to disclose economic interests. The FPPC dismissed the complaint against Walker in October after no violations were found.
The FPPC reported violations were found regarding at least two of the councilmembers.
For retired Councilman William Smith, a warning letter was issued, citing that he had failed to timely report the income he received from the sale of City Hardware, Inc. (ACE Hardware on California City Boulevard), as well as its source on Schedule C of his Form 700, or statement of economic interest.
The warning letter also noted W. Smith failed to report that real estate interests he owned were held in the 2008 William and Donna Trust. According to the FPPC letter, W. Smith amended his letter to include missing information, resulting in just a warning, while adding Smith does not have past issues with the FPPC.
A future violation, would result in a $5,000 fine.
Former councilman Ron Smith on Wednesday said that he had been fined $200 for not reporting two income properties he owned on his FPPC form. He added he is awaiting his letter from the FPPC.
Johnson’s FPPC complaint also indicated that R. Smith earned a salary as pastor of Victory Baptist Church and failed to report that on his Form 700. However, in November, Smith told the Mojave Desert News that he did not take a salary so the church could maintain an associate pastor position deemed critical to the church’s ministry. In addition, Smith maintained Victory Baptist has a stringent financial policy where the pastoral staff does not handle monetary transactions.
Smith on Wednesday said that when he was appointed to fill a vacant council seat that he had no knowledge of a Form 700.
“It wasn’t until March that a Form 700 filled out was put in front of me,” Smith said. “That was my first hearing of a Form 700.” He said he had to sign it and did so before it was submitted to the FPPC.
“When I found there was more to it, no one asked if I had any rental properties,” Smith said. “I amended within three days of the complaint and sent back in.”
The disposition for former Mayor Pro Tem Parris’s complaint has yet to be reported by the FPPC. Johnson’s complaint alleged that Parris listed nothing on his Form 700, but that he had reportable income, as well as had sold a devalued piece of land for three times its worth to “a cannabis operator.”
Parris did sell property to developer and businessman Michael Ellison, who later went through the city’s planning commission and and eventual Oct. 8, 2019, city council approval process under Red Rock Canyon Holdings to have property on Neuralia Road re-zoned to industrial use for eventual cannabis use.
During the Oct. 8, 2019, meeting, Parris had recused himself from voting on the zone changes related to the Ellison properties. Furthermore, in October 2020, Parris stated that he had sold the property mentioned in the FPPC complaint at a loss to help a private school on adjacent property.
Regarding the allegations of corruption, both R. Smith and Parris have denied the accusations.
The FPPC complaints have fueled at least one standalone article, political mailers during election season as absentee ballots were being mailed and have been used by two cannabis companies as the crux in separate lawsuits against the former councilmembers, California City and its city manager. The lawsuits filed went further than the FPPC complaints to include allegations or hints of bribery.
The article, published Sept. 6, 2020, by Hews Media Group newspaper Cerritos Community News, was retracted Oct. 6 in a print statement and removed from its website without detailed explanation. The lawsuits, filed by Grandma’s Stash LLC and M.A.C.C. Consulting after appeals to have their delivery permits re-instated were denied by council, are either pending or have been reportedly tossed out as of the end of January.
“They will not find any evidence of bribery because there is none,” Smith said on Wednesday.
The FPPC’s enforcement division handles violations related to financial conflicts of interest, campaign money laundering, over-the-limit gifts and contributions, improper use of campaign funds, using public funds for mass campaign mailing, false or inaccurate reporting of economic interests and campaign statements, late filing or non-filing of required reports and receiving anonymous/cash contributions over $100.
What the division doesn’t handle are reports of false/misleading campaign materials, election fraud, misuse of public funds not related to mass mailing, violations of laws or codes not related to Political Reform Act, federal-related campaigns, open meeting law issues, local ordinances, or residency requirements for running or holding office. Those issues land in the province of other agencies or the courts.
Editorial note: The Mojave Desert News will report on the outcome of the lawsuits’ conclusion after both are concluded and the judges’ rulings made available.