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Councilman Cate can use campaign cash for legal, PR costs

State watchdog greenlights defense money from reelection committee

Chris Cate
Chris Cate

Ever since Republican San Diego city councilman Chris Cate got into hot water over leaking a confidential city document to a lobbyist for SoccerCity, the controversial plan to privatize the former Qualcomm Stadium, city hall insiders have wondered how he planned to pay his defense bills.

In addition to his legal team, Cate has deployed Tony Manolatos of MNM Advertising and Public Relations to handle a host of thorny questions regarding campaign fundraising by lobbyists Craig Bendetto and Ben Haddad prior to the leak.

Now it turns out that the very same campaign fund backed by the lobbyists can be used by Cate to cover legal and PR expenses arising from the councilman's alleged transgressions, according to an October 25 letter from California Fair Political Practice Commission assistant general counsel Brian Lau to Cate's attorney, Felix Tinkov of Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak.

"A petitioner has filed a lawsuit against the City under the Public Records Act and seeks to depose the Councilmember and a public relations specialist employed by the Councilmember. The public relations specialist, MNM, was hired by the Councilmember to assist with media inquiries regarding the litigation," the missive says, alluding to a pending public records suit brought by attorney Cory Briggs regarding the matter.

"Upon discovering the Councilmember released the memorandum to a different party, the petitioner has made discovery requests pertaining to the Councilmember and his outside public relations company, MNM, inclusive of depositions. The request includes all correspondences between the Councilmember and MNM."

Adds the letter, "The City Attorney, Mara Elliot, has determined that a conflict of interest exists that does not permit her office to represent Councilmember Cate. Thus, the Councilmember proposes to use his campaign re-election funds for attorneys' fees and costs."

FPPC counsel notes that "candidates and elected officials are permitted to use campaign funds to pay for an expenditure that has a “political, legislative or governmental' purpose," including the case at hand.

"The lawsuit against the City to release the memorandum clearly arises directly out of the councilmember's activities, duties, or status as an officer. Therefore, use of campaign funds to pay the attorneys' fees and other costs associated with this action would be permitted. Additionally, MNM was specifically hired to assist with public relations involving the lawsuit, and media strategy is integral to the councilmember's defense. Accordingly, MNM's costs for litigation including attorneys' fees resulting from its work for the Councilmember also arises out of the councilmember's activities, duties, or status as an officer and would be permitted."

How much of a hit Cate's campaign fund will take from his defense spending remains to be seen. As first reported here in June, Cate and other members of the council up for reelection next year were heavy fundraisers during the first half of 2016, as the SoccerCity controversy began to grow.

As of June 30 of this year, according to his most recent filing, Cate's campaign, which raised a total of $251,604, had a cash balance of $224,543, with $33,194 in outstanding debts.

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Chris Cate
Chris Cate

Ever since Republican San Diego city councilman Chris Cate got into hot water over leaking a confidential city document to a lobbyist for SoccerCity, the controversial plan to privatize the former Qualcomm Stadium, city hall insiders have wondered how he planned to pay his defense bills.

In addition to his legal team, Cate has deployed Tony Manolatos of MNM Advertising and Public Relations to handle a host of thorny questions regarding campaign fundraising by lobbyists Craig Bendetto and Ben Haddad prior to the leak.

Now it turns out that the very same campaign fund backed by the lobbyists can be used by Cate to cover legal and PR expenses arising from the councilman's alleged transgressions, according to an October 25 letter from California Fair Political Practice Commission assistant general counsel Brian Lau to Cate's attorney, Felix Tinkov of Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak.

"A petitioner has filed a lawsuit against the City under the Public Records Act and seeks to depose the Councilmember and a public relations specialist employed by the Councilmember. The public relations specialist, MNM, was hired by the Councilmember to assist with media inquiries regarding the litigation," the missive says, alluding to a pending public records suit brought by attorney Cory Briggs regarding the matter.

"Upon discovering the Councilmember released the memorandum to a different party, the petitioner has made discovery requests pertaining to the Councilmember and his outside public relations company, MNM, inclusive of depositions. The request includes all correspondences between the Councilmember and MNM."

Adds the letter, "The City Attorney, Mara Elliot, has determined that a conflict of interest exists that does not permit her office to represent Councilmember Cate. Thus, the Councilmember proposes to use his campaign re-election funds for attorneys' fees and costs."

FPPC counsel notes that "candidates and elected officials are permitted to use campaign funds to pay for an expenditure that has a “political, legislative or governmental' purpose," including the case at hand.

"The lawsuit against the City to release the memorandum clearly arises directly out of the councilmember's activities, duties, or status as an officer. Therefore, use of campaign funds to pay the attorneys' fees and other costs associated with this action would be permitted. Additionally, MNM was specifically hired to assist with public relations involving the lawsuit, and media strategy is integral to the councilmember's defense. Accordingly, MNM's costs for litigation including attorneys' fees resulting from its work for the Councilmember also arises out of the councilmember's activities, duties, or status as an officer and would be permitted."

How much of a hit Cate's campaign fund will take from his defense spending remains to be seen. As first reported here in June, Cate and other members of the council up for reelection next year were heavy fundraisers during the first half of 2016, as the SoccerCity controversy began to grow.

As of June 30 of this year, according to his most recent filing, Cate's campaign, which raised a total of $251,604, had a cash balance of $224,543, with $33,194 in outstanding debts.

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Comments
3

I cannot believe the FPPC made such an ill-reasoned decision.

They might be right if it were true that "The lawsuit against the City to release the memorandum clearly arises directly out of the councilmember's activities, duties, or status as an officer."

But it doesn't: the suit arose from committing "an egregious breach of public trust" by violating the terms of his conduct for office. He violated city policy on council approval to waive attorney-client privilege specifically to hand off a confidential memo to the party it was written about—who also just happened to be his campaign contributors.

By the same reasoning, it would be okay for him to use campaign funds to defend himself against molestation charges, if the alleged offense happened during office hours. It simply can't be right to let serving in office serve as a catch-all to excuse behavior outside the scope of that office.

Nov. 8, 2017

The best way to correct this problem is to vote his ass out of office. He is not dong a good job any ways

Nov. 9, 2017

Cassander makes an excellent point. This act of law-breaking wasn't a part of his activities as a councilmember, it was a part of his activities as a shill for his cronies at FS Investors.

But if the FPPC is going to allow Cates' campaign cash to pay for lawyers and PR spinmeisters, Tony Manolatos' op-ed defending Cate in the VOSD should have included a "Paid for by Cate for Council 2018" disclaimer.

Dec. 16, 2017

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