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Lobbying rises as secrecy envelops San Diego Ethics Commission

Influence peddlers paid $4.3 million by clients in 2019

Stacey Fulhorst, retiring executive director of the Ethics Commission
Stacey Fulhorst, retiring executive director of the Ethics Commission

Lobbying is way up at San Diego city hall. Anti-corruption enforcement by the city's Ethics Commission is another story. Those are the principal takeaways from the commission's June 11 meeting, held via online hookup due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During 2019, lobbying firms reported receiving a total of $4,272,931 from their clients, and organization lobbyists reported making a total of 1,612 lobbying contacts with high-level city officials," says a June 5 report to the commission by retiring executive director Stacey Fulhorst.

Sid Voorakkara, commission chairman

In 2018, by comparison, the city's cadre of registered influence peddlers "reported receiving a total of $2,578,595 from their clients, and organization lobbyists reported making a total of 1,441 lobbying contacts with high-level city officials," says a May 2019 commission memo by Fulhorst.

The city's registered lobbyists are responsible for a big jump in campaign fundraisers during 2019, Fulhorst's June 5 report shows. "Lobbying firms and organization lobbyists disclosed $924,273 in fundraising activities for City candidates and committees formed to support/oppose City candidates."

Fundraising activities by the lobbyist corps in 2018 brought in just $544,107, per the 2019 memo.

"It should be noted that the definition of 'fundraising' is limited to: (1) funds personally delivered to a City candidate; and (2) contributions a lobbyist has taken some credit for raising with the candidate or the candidate's controlled committee," the 2020 report adds.

Commission member Bill Baber

Direct lobbyist-related contributions fell sharply last year, from $746,399 in 2018 to a meager $268,835, possibly an indication that as political money demands climb, the growing raft of lobbyists is shifting more of the fundraising burden to their clients to preserve company margins.

But few other details are available.to the public.

Unlike the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, the San Diego ethics panel conducts its deliberations in secret. The minutes of the group's most recent closed session, held June 11, report six actions taken in secrecy.

Just one, a $500 sanction against defeated city council candidate Wendy Wheatcroft for failing to label her fliers, door hangers, and banners with an "ad paid for by" disclosure, saw the light of day.

A single case, identified as "Solicitation [of] City Employees for Contributions," got a green light for investigation.

The four cases dismissed in secret included Disqualification: Conflict of Interest, Accepting Contributions from Organizations, Disclosure of Economic Interests, and Failure to Timely File Campaign Statement, according to minutes released after the six p.m.meeting.

By cloaking dismissals in confidentiality, members of the commission including Republican politico and professional campaign treasurer Bill Baber and Democrat Sid Voorakkara, commission chairman and San Diego vice president of Strategies 360, a national consulting and lobbying outfit, make public scrutiny of the commission and its processes complicated if not impossible.

Among other assignments, Strategies 360 is running a pot legalizationcampaign in Arizona, per a June 1 account by Phoenix New Times.

In California, the firm boasts a host of controversial lobbying clients with San Diego ties, including scooter company Bird Ride and gig transit operator Lyft, Inc. according to filings with the California Secretary of State.

Baber, an ex-aide to former GOP mayor Dick Murphy, has had his share of run-ins with campaign watchdogs, including being forced in 2011 by the San Diego ethics commission to pay a $10,000 fine for failing to identify the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation as a major donor to a charter change campaign.

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Stacey Fulhorst, retiring executive director of the Ethics Commission
Stacey Fulhorst, retiring executive director of the Ethics Commission

Lobbying is way up at San Diego city hall. Anti-corruption enforcement by the city's Ethics Commission is another story. Those are the principal takeaways from the commission's June 11 meeting, held via online hookup due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"During 2019, lobbying firms reported receiving a total of $4,272,931 from their clients, and organization lobbyists reported making a total of 1,612 lobbying contacts with high-level city officials," says a June 5 report to the commission by retiring executive director Stacey Fulhorst.

Sid Voorakkara, commission chairman

In 2018, by comparison, the city's cadre of registered influence peddlers "reported receiving a total of $2,578,595 from their clients, and organization lobbyists reported making a total of 1,441 lobbying contacts with high-level city officials," says a May 2019 commission memo by Fulhorst.

The city's registered lobbyists are responsible for a big jump in campaign fundraisers during 2019, Fulhorst's June 5 report shows. "Lobbying firms and organization lobbyists disclosed $924,273 in fundraising activities for City candidates and committees formed to support/oppose City candidates."

Fundraising activities by the lobbyist corps in 2018 brought in just $544,107, per the 2019 memo.

"It should be noted that the definition of 'fundraising' is limited to: (1) funds personally delivered to a City candidate; and (2) contributions a lobbyist has taken some credit for raising with the candidate or the candidate's controlled committee," the 2020 report adds.

Commission member Bill Baber

Direct lobbyist-related contributions fell sharply last year, from $746,399 in 2018 to a meager $268,835, possibly an indication that as political money demands climb, the growing raft of lobbyists is shifting more of the fundraising burden to their clients to preserve company margins.

But few other details are available.to the public.

Unlike the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, the San Diego ethics panel conducts its deliberations in secret. The minutes of the group's most recent closed session, held June 11, report six actions taken in secrecy.

Just one, a $500 sanction against defeated city council candidate Wendy Wheatcroft for failing to label her fliers, door hangers, and banners with an "ad paid for by" disclosure, saw the light of day.

A single case, identified as "Solicitation [of] City Employees for Contributions," got a green light for investigation.

The four cases dismissed in secret included Disqualification: Conflict of Interest, Accepting Contributions from Organizations, Disclosure of Economic Interests, and Failure to Timely File Campaign Statement, according to minutes released after the six p.m.meeting.

By cloaking dismissals in confidentiality, members of the commission including Republican politico and professional campaign treasurer Bill Baber and Democrat Sid Voorakkara, commission chairman and San Diego vice president of Strategies 360, a national consulting and lobbying outfit, make public scrutiny of the commission and its processes complicated if not impossible.

Among other assignments, Strategies 360 is running a pot legalizationcampaign in Arizona, per a June 1 account by Phoenix New Times.

In California, the firm boasts a host of controversial lobbying clients with San Diego ties, including scooter company Bird Ride and gig transit operator Lyft, Inc. according to filings with the California Secretary of State.

Baber, an ex-aide to former GOP mayor Dick Murphy, has had his share of run-ins with campaign watchdogs, including being forced in 2011 by the San Diego ethics commission to pay a $10,000 fine for failing to identify the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation as a major donor to a charter change campaign.

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