This fall’s congressional race spilled into the county supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday as three members of the public availed themselves of the open-mike portion of the meeting to accuse county supervisor and Democratic congressional candidate Salud Carbajal of accepting bribes from Miramar hotel owner and developer Rick Caruso. A film crew working on behalf of Carbajal’s Republican opponent Justin Fareed was present to record the exchange. Carbajal asked County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni whether the line separating free speech from defamation had been crossed. Ghizzoni replied that so long as matters of legislative action were targeted, speakers are given wide latitude.
Carbajal has received $10,800 in congressional campaign donations from Caruso and his wife. In 2011, Caruso donated $15,000 to Carbajal’s reelection campaign. Supervisor Doreen Farr disputed that any process had been expedited for Caruso, noting that each of his multiple permits had been vetted and approved by the Planning Commission as well as the Board of Supervisors. She added that the Miramar has been a project of intense community concern for at least 15 years and predated Carbajal’s tenure on the board.
Caruso’s hotel efforts have come under scrutiny recently as members of the Montecito Association have suggested the developer might be dragging his feet. Caruso currently has all discretionary permits to begin construction, they noted, yet ground breaking has not begun. In 2012, Carbajal took up Caruso’s proposal for the county to waive transient occupancy taxes — worth an estimated $18 million — in order to expedite construction of what was then, and remains, a long-dormant hotel development plan. Caruso complained he needed relief from the crushing costs of construction.
Ultimately, Caruso declined to pursue the benefits, citing requirements he deemed objectionable. Reports about the proposed deal feature prominently in the opposition research dossier compiled by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Carbajal.