The Humboldt County Deputy Sheriff’s Organization’s political action committee has reached a proposed settlement with the state Fair Political Practices Commission after pervasive campaign finance disclosure violations dating back to 2012.
Under the proposed settlement, which still needs to be approved by the commission, the PAC will admit to seven violations of campaign finance transparency laws and pay $17,500 in fines. It faced a maximum penalty of $35,000 for failing to timely file 16 disclosure forms over a five-year period that would have reported a total of $82,467 in donations to the PAC and $68,510 in political contributions from the PAC.
Humboldt County Deputy Sheriff’s Organization President Jamie Barney said the problem appears to have started when a new member began taking over campaign finance disclosure filings for the organization back in 2012. “The guy who was doing it for us apparently didn’t do it properly or didn’t do it at all,” Barney said, declining to identify the member. (The FPPC settlement identifies him as Scott Hicks.)
Barney said the member still maintains that he filed all the necessary forms but state and county records don’t show that to be the case. The organization has cooperated fully with the FPPC since being notified there was a problem, Barney said, adding that he has personally taken over filing duties and even attended a class put on by the Police Officers Research Association of California on the subject to bring himself up to speed with state requirements.
The FPPC investigation opened after a referral from the Secretary of State’s Office alleged the organization failed to pay annual fees. Once the FPPC began investigating, it found the pervasive violations. However, its investigation found no ill intent behind them.
“The violations committed by respondents are part of a long pattern of non-compliance with the (Political Reform Act) that dates back to 2012,” the proposed settlement states. “Considering that respondents failed to meet their campaign filing requirements for five years, despite significant financial activity each reporting period, the length of time for which respondents failed to comply with the Act’s campaign reporting requirements is an aggravating factor. However, despite respondent’s actions, the Enforcement Division found no evidence that respondents intended to conceal, deceive or mislead the public.”
Formed in 2008, the all-volunteer deputy sheriff’s organization represents district attorney investigators, welfare fraud investigators, Humboldt County probation officers and deputy sheriffs. Barney said it has about 140 members, each of whom pays $5 out of each of their 26 annual paychecks to fund the PAC, which then endorses candidates and makes political donations at the discretion of its board. (Barney said contentious endorsements and donations go to a membership-wide vote.)
Passed in 1974, the Political Reform Act is aimed at promoting transparency by requiring donors and candidates to disclose who they’re giving money to and who they’re getting it from, allowing voters to take that into account and make informed decisions. The act outlines a detailed campaign reporting system in which campaigns and political action committees must file public disclosure statements for certain periods of time by certain deadlines.
According to the settlement, the deputy sheriff’s PAC failed to file a total of nine semiannual disclosures and three pre-election disclosures. Additionally, the PAC failed to file four 24-hour disclosures — disclosures of donations of $1,000 or more made within 90 days of an election — for donations made to District Attorney Maggie Fleming and Humboldt County supervisors Virginia Bass and Ryan Sundberg in 2014 and another to Supervisor Estelle Fennell in 2016.
FPPC staff is recommending that the commission approve the settlement at its Dec. 21 meeting. The deputy sheriff’s PAC currently has about $55,000 on hand, according to disclosure forms on file with the county.