The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) fined Councilwoman Barbara Messina and her husband, Michael Messina, $14,000 for violations involving a campaign bank account, reporting of expenditures and sender identification on mass mailings. The violations are the result of a campaign mailer in the 2006 election Alhambra City Council election. The Commission found that Michael Messina, while acting as campaign treasurer and manager, was involved in creating an organization whose purpose was to allege that an opponent, Dan Agruello, had ties to gambling and would try to bring it to Alhambra. Messina then went on to support the group with $20,000 for mailings that did not identify a link to the campaign.
“By not depositing the contributions into the campaign bank account, not making expenditures from the campaign bank account, and not reporting either of these as contributions and expenditures,” the FPPC reports in its findings, the Messinas “severely limited the public’s knowledge of who was financing the effort to oppose candidate Dan Arguello.” The act the Messinas violated is designed to achieve full disclosure and ensure “that receipts and expenditures in election campaigns are fully and truthfully disclosed, so that voters may be fully informed, and improper practices may be inhibited.” It defines a “committee” as “any person or combination of persons who directly or indirectly receives contributions totaling $1,000 or more in a calendar year.
Councilwoman Messina, who was first elected to public office in Alhambra in 1986, said that while she and her husband agreed to the fine, they still feel they are innocent and the commission is wrong in accusation. “We cooperated completely with the FTPC and really were in the dark about what the problems were,” Messina said. “When we finally got an explanation as to why we were being fined for these different counts, they said that everything that the independent committee did had to be run through my campaign committee which we didn’t do because we weren’t part of that independent committee. That was their ruling, and I still feel that I was wronged because it was an independent committee.”
The FPPC report tells a different story. According to its findings, in September 2006 Michael Messina, a former City Council member himself who was then treasurer and campaign manager for his wife’s campaign; former Alhambra mayor Paul Talbot and local developer Der-Mean Sun discussed sending out mailers to provide information regarding a competing candidate for Alhambra City Council, Arguello, and the possibility that he could bring gambling to Alhambra. The three determined that $20,000 would be the mailers cost and that Michael Messina would provide the funding, Sun would form a committee to produce and send the mailers and Mr. Talbot would work with the printers to produce them.
The report states that on September 25, 2006, Sun filed a Form 410, Statement of Organization, to form the Neighbors Against A Casino in Alhambra committee (“NAACA”). Michael Messina then provided Sun with $20,000 in the form of four $5,000 cashier’s checks, which were then deposited into the NAACA bank account. Messina obtained the funds from The Messina Family Trust account.
In an interview, Barbara Messina said that she did not know about the group at the time and disputed the claims that it was directly linked to her campaign. “Their interpretation of what an independent committee is and the way we understood an independent committee is totally different. We were not part of that independent committee,” she said. “My husband was a major contributor to that independent committee and filed as a major contributor and did all the paperwork that he had to do. My husband had no knowledge of what that committee was doing. But the FPPC report is based on a complaint that they received.”
The FPPC maintains, however, that an expenditure is defined as any payment made for political purposes — and that Messina’s to the NAACA was clearly that. In addition, it states that all money received and expended by the candidate or committee for political purposes must go through the campaign bank account. In another count, the report states that instead of providing identification connected to the Messina campaign, the NAACA was listed as the sender and a UPS Mailbox Store was listed as the address. Records obtained establish that Respondents sent over 36,000 mailers during the weeks before the election and paid approximately $18,757 for related expenses, including the printing and postage of the mailers. Over 12,000 copies of each of the three different mailers were produced and sent to residences in the jurisdiction.
“The sender identification provided on the mass mailerswas misleading,” the report states. “NAACA was identified as the sender of the mailers opposing Mr. Arguello. To further confuse the public, NAACA was formed as a city general purpose committee, not even as a committee primarily formed for the purpose of opposing one candidate (Mr. Arguello) or supporting another (Respondent Barbara Messina), and then terminated after the mailers were sent out. In further aggravation, NAACA’s campaign filing identifying Respondent Michael Messina as the source of the $20,000 that funded the mailers was not filed until late afternoon the day before the election, making it even more difficult for a connection to be made to the Messina campaign prior to the election.” In determining the fine, the report states that as veteran politicians the Messina’s should have been aware of the rules.
The Messinas brought a legal challenge to the fine, according to Barbara Messina, and had it reduced from $19,000 to $14,000. “I did follow the rules. My husband as my campaign manager and my treasurer had done this, unbeknownst to me,” she said, alleging that she is the victim of a smear campaign. “I have had much dirtier campaigns directed to me and have never sunk to that level. This is what is still really upsetting to me. Because nothing ever happens to the other people. It’s really dirty, dirty politics.”
The Fair Practices commission will decide on the settlement Thursday, at which point it will either approve it or change the penalty approach.