Ventura County Star (California)
BYLINE: Ventura County Star; Gretchen Wenner
Two more Oxnard officials have agreed to pay fines for violating state law governing gift disclosures.
Interim City Manger Karen Burnham and Ken Ortega, the city’s former public works director, have reached agreements with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency that regulates disclosure laws for public officials, according to documents released Friday.
Burnham agreed to pay $2,000 for failing to report three meals paid for by a developer in 2007 and 2008. An affiliate of J.F. Shea Co., one of the developers of Oxnard’s RiverPark community, provided Burnham a lunch and a dinner in 2007 totaling $154.26. The following year, Shea paid for her $157.18 dinner.
Ortega will pay $7,000 for multiple violations from 2007 to 2009, including failing to fully report meals, a round of golf, three baseball games and a Broadway show in New York City, provided by several entities doing business with the city. Ortega’s five counts include not only failure to report but also exceeding annual gift limits.
The bulk of Ortega’s unreported or underreported gifts occurred in 2008, the filings show. A bond underwriting firm, E.J. De La Rosa & Co. Inc., provided $1,015.95 in meals, drinks, a baseball game and a Broadway show for Ortega and his wife that year. The Ojai Valley Inn gave Ortega a $170 golf game, and engineering consultant Kennedy/Jenks/Todd LLC bought him meals worth $98.90. Ortega resigned from his job in June 2010.
“I’m relieved this ordeal is over,” Ortega said Friday, adding that he’s grateful that he has been “forthright and forthcoming” regarding what he did and has accepted the consequences of his actions. He said he looks forward to “just moving on.”
Burnham said she wanted to consult with her lawyer, who was not immediately available Friday afternoon, before commenting.
State law requires certain public officials to report gifts – including meals, golf games and tickets to sporting and theater events – that total more than $50 a year from a single source. In addition, officials cannot accept gifts from a donor above an annual limit. That limit currently is $420.
The administrative fines for Burnham and Ortega are slated for approval by the commission at its Sept. 13 meeting in Sacramento. Such deals, which are agreed upon before they appear on the commission’s agenda, are generally approved as routine matters without comment.
The commission’s investigation stemmed from a referral by Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten’s office, which in April wrapped up what had been a nearly two-year criminal probe of possible corruption in Oxnard. The DA investigation ended with no criminal charges, but a 99-page report criticized the city’s sometimes sloppy record keeping and spoke of serious fiscal abuses by top officials.
In some respects, the DA’s investigation started with Ortega after The Star published a story in May 2010 about gifts Ortega and a project manager working under him hadn’t reported. Ortega freely admitted accepting the gifts, saying he didn’t think the reporting threshold had been triggered. He also later told DA investigators it was common practice for Oxnard officials to accept gifts without disclosing them, saying he was being singled out unfairly. Indeed, a list of mostly unreported gifts given to eight Oxnard officials, including Ortega, takes up five pages in the DA’s report.
While the commission’s documents don’t identify restaurants or other specifics, the meals and dates match the DA’s gift list. Burnham’s meals paid by Shea were a lunch at Casa Escobar in Oxnard and two dinners in Las Vegas, at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House and at Strip House, the DA report shows. There are fewer specifics about venues Ortega attended, but they include three Dodgers games, dinners in New York at Tribeca Grill and Gotham Bar & Grill, and meals at Scoma’s and Cliff House in San Francisco.
Officials pay the fines with a cashier’s check made out to the state’s general fund. In Ortega’s case, he also must pay back donors for any amounts in excess of annual gift limits.
Three other Oxnard officials had similar agreements for various violations that were approved at the commission’s August meeting. City Manager Ed Sotelo, who is currently on paid leave, paid $12,500; Mayor Tom Holden, $10,500; and Community Development Director Curtis Cannon, $4,000.
In addition to counts arising from failing to report gifts and accepting amounts above the limit, Sotelo and Holden both received conflict-of-interest penalties for being involved with decisions concerning donors from whom they had accepted gifts above the limit.
Additional Oxnard cases are still being investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission.
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