Bob McPhail 6:31 a.m., May 19
Filner transition team to be headed by lobbyist for big developer with storied history of campaign finance violations
Democratic congressman Bob Filner announced at his first news conference as San Diego's mayor-elect yesterday that Allen Jones, longtime lobbyist for real estate and development company H.G. Fenton, would oversee his transition team.
Jones is a Fenton vice president, according to the firm's most recent lobbying disclosure statement, dated October 25 and posted online by the San Diego city clerk's office.
A deputy city planning director and Filner city council aide before joining Fenton in 1990, Jones is listed as one of four individuals designated to lobby for the firm. The others are Fenton president and C.E.O. Michael P. Neal, general counsel Kari Prevost, and Carroll Whaler, vice president of residential property management.
"H.G. Fenton is a real estate management and development company," the filing notes. "The company processes entitlement applications for new development. It also manages a portfolio of residential apartment and office/industrial properties."
According to Fenton’s website, the firm boasts “Over 3,000 apartment homes” and “Over 4 million square feet of office and industrial space.” Fenton also has a storied history of city hall influence seeking and campaign finance violations involving Jones, Filner, former city councilwoman Valerie Stallings, ex-mayor Susan Golding, and other public officials.
In February 1996, Fenton agreed to pay a $90,300 fine after acknowledging that between 1989 and 1993 it had routed almost $10,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Golding and various city council members through 53 separate checks from six employees and the wife of one worker, all later reimbursed for the expenditures, according to the Union-Tribune's account of the settlement.
Recipients of the funds included Filner, who by the time of the settlement had been elected to congress. None of those who received the money were charged in the case, and the assistant city attorney handling the matter said the politicians were not aware of the ultimate source of the cash each had gotten.
"This was a real shock to me," then-councilwoman Valerie Stallings told the newspaper. "It makes me sad, because it does not help anybody's reputation." (Stallings was forced to resign in January 2001 by a subsequent influence peddling scandal involving Padres owner John Moores.)
Jones, then Fenton’s planning manager, and the company's then-real estate development manager Neal were identified by the city attorney's office as two of the donors, according to the U-T report of February 14, 1996. Like Filner and the other city officials who received the funds, no individual Fenton employees were charged or sanctioned. Jones declined to comment, the newspaper reported.
"This is exactly the kind of case that destroys the public trust in the financing of elections," then-assistant city attorney Gwinn was quoted as saying, "because it looks like the company is trying to buy influence."
Gwinn said he “would have liked to pursue employees but could not because of limited resources,” the paper reported.
The violations came to light when former Fenton president David L. Vickers charged in a lawsuit that he had been forced to contribute $2,500 to various city candidates in 1993 and had been subsequently reimbursed by the firm, according to the account.
"The company recognizes that the procedure was ill-advised and illegal and was inconsistent with Fenton's business ethics," a lawyer for Fenton said in a statement issued at the time of the settlement.
According to the U-T account, “The privately held construction materials firm wanted to amend the community plan in Mira Mesa to allow for redevelopment of 573 acres it owns. Company officials wanted the site approved for industrial and retail use once their permit for gravel mining expires in 2015. The council approved the amendment in December 1994, after the contributions reportedly stopped.”
Fenton’s financial stake in city hall decision-making, records show, has grown even larger since then. During the third quarter of this year, according to Fenton's most recent disclosure, the firm's employees, including Jones, made 11 contacts with city officials regarding an array of company interests.
Issues lobbied included a proposed "linkage fee on commercial development." The lobbyists’ objective was listed as adoption of a fee level that "does not make new development infeasible."
Regarding a city tobacco control ordinance, the company aimed to "ensure that any restriction on smoking in rental residential projects provides flexibility for the means of property owner compliance."
In the case of the river park, the company wanted to "ensure that redevelopment can be feasibly accomplished" within proposed city development regulations.
Fenton’s lobbying disclosure also revealed that Jones and his three colleagues had engaged in unspecified "fundraising activities" on behalf of Republican city councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who is not up for re-election until 2014, and Scott Sherman, elected to the council in June.
City campaign finance disclosure records show that since 2007 Fenton employees, including Jones, Neal, Whaler, and Prevost, have contributed a total of $33,330 to campaigns here, including $2,901 to Zapf; $2,560 to city attorney Jan Goldsmith; and $2,290 to the earlier campaign committees of departing GOP mayor Jerry Sanders.
This March, Dorian Hargrove reported that Sherman had received “dozens of donations from the building industry, including a total of $7,600 in 2011 from principals and employees of developers H.G. Fenton, Sudberry Properties, McMillin, and Urban Housing Partners and from Superior Ready Mix.” Sherman will take his seat on the council next month, the same day Filner is sworn in as mayor.
According to Fenton's most recent California campaign disclosure filing, covering the first half of this year, the company gave $6,000 to the San Diego County Apartment Association PAC; $5,000 to the Building Industry Association of San Diego County PAC; and $2,500 to Comprehensive Pension Reform for San Diego, the committee that sponsored the city's so-called pension reform measure, backed by Sanders and Filner's GOP foe, city councilman Carl DeMaio and opposed by Filner and his labor allies. Since passage of the measure in June, Filner has sent mixed messages about his support for it, according to an August account on the Voice of San Diego online news website.
Federal campaign disclosure records show that Jones has contributed a total of $1759 to Filner’s congressional campaign fund since 1997. In February of this year Jones gave $500 to Democrat Scott Peters, currently out front in a tight congressional race against GOP incumbent Brian Bilbray.
In addition to Jones and his colleagues, Fenton has also employed contract lobbyists to influence city decisions. As reported here in May, the downtown law and lobbying firm of Schwartz Heidel Sullivan was paid $6,000 by the company to lobby city development official Brad Richter for a permit to build a “downtown residential project located at 10th Avenue and Market Street."
We’ve left calls for Filner and Jones requesting more information regarding the Jones appointment, including whether the Fenton vice president will be paid by Filner campaign funds for his transition work or will act as a volunteer, and whether the lobbyist will be involved with the vetting of Filner's land use and development regulation-related appointments.
Editors note: Jim Holman, owner and publisher of the Reader, sold the newspaper’s Little Italy building to H.G. Fenton Development Company LLC on October 4, according to county records, and will relocate the publication’s offices to a building in Golden Hill, as reported by the U-T’s Roger Showley in June.