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It isn't a conflict of interest for the chairman of the county's Jamul and Dulzura planning group to participate in discussions about a casino project being promoted by a lobbying firm that employs him on a project-by-project contractual basis.

So say lawyers with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission in a May 15 letter to Michael Casinelli, responding to his request for legal guidance in the matter.

Reached by phone this morning, Casinelli identified the firm referred to in the letter as MJE Marketing Services, whose senior advisor David Nielsen, is handling the Jamul Indian Village casino account.

Cassinelli says he does marketing and economic consulting for MJE, but is not involved in any way with the casino project itself.

MJE is one of the most prominent lobbying firms in the county.

As we reported last month, the company's Kristen Byrne and Lauren Bogart have for months been lobbying city of San Diego officials on behalf of the controversial Balboa Park modification project backed by billionaire Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.

According to the FPPC's letter, Casinelli's conflict of interest question arose when the Jamul Indians "hired a public relations firm that has been a repeat client of yours in the past, and it is anticipated that the firm will want you to work on a new project [in the future.]."

"You are the chair of the Planning Group for the geographic areas of Jamul and Dulzura," FPPC general counsel Zackery P. Morazzini and legal division counsel Valentina Joyce say in their letter to Casinelli.

Notes the pair: "The Planning Group is concerned about a proposal by the Jamul Indian Village to build a gaming casino in Jamul.

"The proposal is very contentious between the Indian Village and local citizens, as well as the local fire department, local schools, Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, California Department of Fish and Game and the County Sheriff‟s Department."

Casinelli owns a firm that "conducts research for dozens of clients, including public relations firms, on a contracted project-by-project basis," the letter adds.

"You ask whether your position as a member of the Planning Group creates a conflict-of-interest in connection with your work for [MJE]."

The answer, the FPPC lawyers say, is no.

Morazzini and Joyce come to their conclusion by arguing that the Casinelli-chaired planning committee's role in the county's decision-making process is only advisory.

"The Planning Group does not make final governmental decisions and cannot compel or prevent a governmental decision," the letter says.

"In addition, because the committee does not make recommendations directly to the decisionmaker, the board of supervisors, there is no history of verbatim approval of the Planning Group‟s recommendations without significant amendment or modification by another public official or governmental agency."

"Consequently, members of the Planning Group are not members of a decisionmaking board or commission, and, therefore are not 'public officials' within the meaning of Section 87100, and are not subject to the Act's conflict-of-interest provisions."

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