San Diego residents allege wrongdoing by campaign for Assemblyman Todd Gloria

Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a Democrat running for San Diego Mayor in 2020, is pictured during his successful bid for election to the state Assembly in 2016.

An attorney representing two city residents asked San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and the county’s district attorney, Summer Stephan, to “civilly prosecute” Assemblyman Todd Gloria for alleged violations of campaign laws.

Gloria’s campaign on Thursday, Aug. 15, called the letter a baseless political attack.

The letter, dated Aug. 14, accuses Gloria, who is running to replace Mayor Kevin Faulconer in 2020, of establishing a separate campaign committee to run for Assembly in 2020 - even though Gloria never intended to run for that office. The letter also accuses him of failing to file the paperwork for the committee before accepting about $293,000 in donations left over from Gloria’s 2018 campaign when he ran for State Assembly.

Some of that money has since been dispersed to campaigns for other Democrats, the letter says, and to a political committee for the San Diego County Democratic Party. The letter said some of the recipients allegedly knew that Gloria was not running for Assembly in 2020.

“My clients have reason to believe that there is a conspiracy to launder campaign money from an illegal campaign committee controlled by Mr. Gloria to the San Diego County Democratic Party, to a candidate to replace Mr. Gloria in the Assembly, and to several sitting members of the Assembly,” Los Angeles County-based attorney David E. Kenney wrote in the letter.

The clients, identified in the letter as Kathryn Burton and Mat Wahlstrom, both live in San Diego, according to public records.

Burton is a donor to campaigns including one of Gloria’s mayoral opponents, San Diego City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, according to campaign finance records on file with the City Clerk’s office. She contributed $150 to Bry’s campaign for City Council in 2016 and $200 so far this year to Bry’s campaign for mayor.

Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Aug. 15, Burton said the letter was written in the interest of government transparency and was not motivated by politics.

A search of City Clerk records did not turn up any contributions from Wahlstrom, a former member of the Uptown Community Planning Group.

Wahlstrom could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, Aug. 15.

The letter asks Elliott and Stephan to respond within 120 days, as required by law.

Spokespeople for both Elliott and Stephan told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday, Aug. 15, that their offices had received the letter.

Elliott’s office is reviewing the letter, according to her spokeswoman, Hilary Nemchik.

Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for Stephan, said she could not confirm the existence of any potential investigation that may result from the demand letter.

Gloria’s mayoral campaign manager, Nick Serrano, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an email Thursday, Aug. 15, that the issue was an oversight that Gloria self-reported to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, not a conspiracy.

“This complaint is baseless and politically-motivated,” Serrano said. “There was an administrative oversight by Assemblymember Gloria’s committee that has been corrected and he has taken full responsibility for.

“We self-reported this matter to the (California Fair Political Practices Commission) to make them aware, and the matter is already in their hands as the proper agency to interpret and enforce these laws,” the email continued.

Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed in an email Thursday, Aug. 15, that Gloria’s campaign had self-reported a possible enforcement issue. Wierenga said the FPPC’s enforcement officials are “determining the appropriate action moving forward.”

Gloria created the 2020 Assembly campaign committee early this year and has been raising and spending money from its coffers, according to financial disclosures on file with the California Secretary of State.

He did not file a statement of his intention to run for Assembly in 2020 until Tuesday, Aug. 13.

Candidates must file a sworn statement of intention before they begin fundraising, according to the Secretary of State’s website. The statement is signed under penalty of perjury.

Gloria’s campaign filed the statement the day after the community newspaper San Diego La Prensa asked Gloria’s campaign manager about the missing form, according to an article published Tuesday, Aug. 13, on La Prensa’s website.

Gloria’s 2020 Assembly campaign reported receiving on March 19 the transfer of $293,078 in cash left over from his 2018 campaign for Assembly, according to financial disclosures.

The March 19 transfer happened a little less than two weeks before the money would have become “surplus” funds under state law, triggering strict limitations on how the cash could be used, according to the demand letter sent to Elliott and Stephan.

Gloria closed out the 2018 Assembly campaign the same day the money was transferred, according to the letter.

The city and state have different contribution limits and rules about the types of donors who can contribute to political campaigns, according to the City Clerk’s website.

In a tweet Wednesday, Aug. 14, Gloria addressed questions surrounding the late filing of his candidate intention statement for his 2020 Assembly campaign, and the committee’s purpose.

“My Assembly committee remains open to fulfill my responsibilities as a member of the State Assembly until the end of my current term,” the tweet said. “The form filed by my committee yesterday simply corrected an administrative oversight that occurred when the paperwork was filed months ago.”

Rey López-Calderón, executive director of California Common Cause, told the Union-Tribune in a phone call Friday, Aug. 16, that it seemed clear that Gloria violated state law by using the Assembly 2020 committee to receive funds from his 2018 bid before he had filed the required paperwork.

“In order to convert that money to avoid having it become surplus, he had to have created a new committee and filed a (statement of candidate intention) at that exact time, and he violated that,” López-Calderón said. “That is a violation. Depending on what they decide to do with the funding overall there may be fines for each individual expenditure.”

Gloria, Bry, and community advocate Tasha Williamson are considered the front runners among Democrats running to replace Faulconer, who cannot run for reelection in 2020 because of term limits. The primary election is scheduled for March 3.

— Morgan Cook is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune