Sacramento Mayor Fined For Not Reporting Donations

California's political watchdog group announced Monday it had fined Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson $37,500 for failing to report millions of dollars in donations he solicited for various nonprofit organizations, including his task force charged with developing a financing plan for a new basketball arena.
by , | December 4, 2012

Sacramento Mayor Fined For Not Reporting Donations

California's political watchdog group announced Monday it had fined Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson $37,500 for failing to report millions of dollars in donations he solicited for various nonprofit organizations, including his task force charged with developing a financing plan for a new basketball arena.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission said it found 25 cases in which Johnson failed to report what are called behest payments - donations to a nonprofit made at the request of an elected official - within the required 30 days of securing those donations. The FPPC investigation was sparked by a Sacramento Bee report in September that revealed thousands of dollars in donations to the mayor's Think Big arena task force had not been reported on time, some several months late.

The behests examined by the FPPC totaled more than $3.5 million and were made to the mayor's arena task force and another initiative he founded that focuses on education reform. Donations secured by the mayor were also made to City Year, a national program Johnson recruited to Sacramento that places young tutors and mentors in schools, and Teach for America, a national education organization that places young teachers in underperforming schools.

Johnson has relied upon behests to bolster various initiatives that operate outside his traditional daily duties at City Hall. Unlike previous mayors, Johnson rarely promotes his causes through what he has described as an entangling city bureaucracy.

In the past two years, the mayor has raised more than $4 million in behests from national organizations, local companies and individual donors for his city initiatives and the nonprofits he supports.

His initiatives now operate under an umbrella organization called the Sacramento Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit with no formal affiliation with the city. In addition to his arena and education groups, Johnson has founded initiatives tackling homelessness and working to promote clean technology and the arts.

His reliance on the behest model has created some unusual partnerships. A Bee report in September revealed that nearly $400,000 in donations to the mayor's arena task force came via the Sacramento Kings, who at the time were negotiating with the city over the terms of the arena financing plan. The Kings donations originated with an arrangement secured by the mayor that stipulated that 10 percent of corporate sponsorships to the team would be funneled to Think Big.

Those donations were reported after the arena deal fell apart and well past the state's reporting deadline, catching the attention of the FPPC.

Johnson paid the FPPC fine last week from campaign funds, his aides said. The case is scheduled for an FPPC hearing next week in San Diego by the full commission, which will decide whether the fine is adequate.

FPPC investigators said in a report that Johnson had cooperated with their probe and that the mayor said "the failure to report (the behests) was unintentional, resulting from an administrative lapse and inadequate staff training." They said the mayor did not appear to obtain "any personal monetary benefit as a result of the donations in question."

FPPC officials declined further comment until the matter is heard by the full commission.

"While I appreciate acknowledgment in the FPPC report that this error was an unintentional administrative lapse related to efforts to raise resources for charities and civic causes, I take full responsibility," the mayor said in a statement. "At my direction, my administration has improved training and tracking procedures to ensure we are fully compliant moving forward."

Dan Schnur, a former chair of the FPPC and current director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said the commission could have fined Johnson more. The FPPC report said the maximum fine Johnson faced was $125,000.

"The message they seem to be sending is, 'You did something wrong, but we recognize it wasn't intentional and we appreciate your efforts to make it right,' " Schnur said.

"There are more than enough politicians around the state who do the wrong thing intentionally and then fight the commission tooth and nail. What the mayor's actions suggest is if you make an honest mistake and come clean, you're going to face a much more understanding response."

While the FPPC has levied much higher fines on state politicians for campaign violations, the punishment against Johnson is believed to be one of the largest ethics fines handed out by the commission against an elected official for actions not campaign related.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agreed last year to pay nearly $42,000 in fines to the FPPC and the Los Angeles Ethics Commission for failing to report as gifts tickets to sporting events, concerts and other events. At the time, media reports described the fine as the largest ethics infraction ever handed down by the FPPC.

Johnson's delay in reporting behest donations is new territory for the FPPC. In their report, investigators said, "there are no comparable cases involving non-reporting or late reporting of a behested payment."

Many of the donations reported late went to Johnson's Stand Up education initiative. Those behests came to more than $1.5 million, and included two donations totaling $500,000 this year from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization operated by the family who founded Wal-Mart.

Councilman Rob Fong, who is stepping down from the council after two terms, was also fined by the FPPC for not reporting behests on time, the commission announced Monday. Fong was fined $3,000 for failing to report two donations made on his behalf by the city's plumbers union to a homeless advocacy organization.

Fong did not return a message seeking comment. An FPPC report said Fong's violations did not appear to be intentional.

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