Silent Partners

Did Late Donations Sway Goleta’s Second-Ever Election?

by Martha Sadler

Goleta_City_Council.jpgThe three winners in Goleta’s city
council race last November, who unseated three incumbents, received
an assist from more than $120,000 in donations from developers with
both projects and lawsuits pending before the council. Those
donations were not reported until after all the votes were in
because, as in most election seasons, the most current campaign
finance report is made two weeks before election day. That creates
a two-week window when sizable donations can be legally hidden
until well after the campaign is over.

Candidates must report donations totalling $1,000 or more from a
single donor during those two weeks, meaning that gifts of even one
dollar under $1,000 could temporarily escape notice. In Goleta, as
in no other South County race, donors took advantage of the window
of temporary invisibility by writing numerous checks for exactly
$999 to their favored candidates and the political action
committees that supported them.

Margaret Connell, one of the unseated incumbents, analyzed the
results of this last-minute funding and found that five members of
the Keston family donated a total of $16,646 to her opponents in
the final two weeks of the campaign. Michael Keston heads the
Encino-based Larwin Company, which has been trying for years to
develop the Bishop Ranch property between Los Carneros and Glen
Annie roads. He and four close relatives made a total of 18
donations during the final two weeks to winning candidates Michael
Bennett, Eric Onnen, and Roger Aceves, and to two organizations
that backed Bennett and Onnen, the South Coast PAC and Goletans for
Fiscal Responsibility. The donations were all between $900 and
$999. While it is illegal for a corporation to funnel contributions
through its employees in order to remain within contribution
constraints, the same rule may apply to a family if one family
member reimburses another for the contribution, according to the
California Fair Political Practices Commission Handbook. People
with an interest in the Santa Barbara-based Towbes Group — which
has developed several commercial and residential sites in Goleta,
with plans for more — also made $999 and $900 donations to Onnen,
Bennett, Aceves, and the two political action committees during the
two-week silent-contribution window. Thirteen such donations came
from company president Michael Towbes, his wife Anne Smith Towbes,
company vice president Craig Zimmerman, and his wife Amy Zimmerman
for a grand total of $11,400.

Bennett received the largest dollar amount of direct donations
from these eight contributors during the campaign’s final two
weeks: $7,299. His receipts were closely followed by those of
Onnen, who received $7,200. Aceves received $2,699. The South Coast
PAC and Goletans for Fiscal Responsibility, both endorsing Bennett
and Onnen, received a total of $10,740, almost all of which came in
the form of $999 donations.

The defeated incumbents and the political action committee that
supported them — Friends of Goleta — also received a total of
$13,213 during the final two-week period and afterward, including
$489 from Towbes and Zimmerman to Connell, and $1,500 in oil
company money to Connell and Brock. Bennett and Onnen did not
comment on the late donations, but Aceves said that the late
donations he received paid for last-minute radio spots that he felt
probably made a difference in his campaign. However, he said that
the contributions do not shake his commitment to protecting the
environment and affordable housing. “I think the public has a right
to know from start to finish who is backing the campaign,” he
declared, adding: “I don’t know what exactly it will require to
change that. There should be some way we can file electronically
directly to the city clerk, and the city clerk should immediately
put it on a file that can be accessed by the public.”

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