Pay to Play at City Hall

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The Levine Act is a California law which came into effect on January 1, 2023 which makes it illegal for individuals and businesses to make donations to politicians in excess of $250 while “a proceeding involving a license, permit, or other entitlement for use is pending”, as well as for the 12 months following the conclusion of these proceedings. Readers may be familiar with this law from the Levine Act disclosures question which has now been incorporated into city council meetings.

Unfortunately, recent happenings here in Santa Monica illustrate why this law was necessary. Since at least January of 2023, Greg Morena, the operator of the The Albright on the Santa Monica Pier and a former Santa Monica city councilmember, has been seeking to assume the lease for Rusty’s SM Pier, another restaurant on the Pier. An item allowing the takeover was item 3J on the 1/24/2023 city council agenda. This matter is now back before the city council in closed session as item 4B, along with an additional item 4C regarding Morena threatening litigation against the city to try to get this matter resolved in his favor.

On December 31, 2023, Morena made the maximum donation of $410 to Mayor Phil Brock. Astute readers will note that the amount of time between 1/24/2023 and 12/31/2023 is less than 12 months. The Levine Act addresses these matters from both ends; both the donation by the person with business before the elected official and the acceptance of the donation by the elected official is illegal. I.E., both Morena and Brock were in violation of the act when the donation was made, eleven months after Morena’s business appeared at Council.

(2) A party, or agent to a party, to a proceeding involving a license, permit, or other entitlement for use pending before any agency or a participant, or agent to a participant, in the proceeding shall not make a contribution of more than two hundred fifty dollars ($250) to any officer of that agency during the proceeding and for 12 months following the date a final decision is rendered by the agency in the proceeding.

CA Govt Code § 84308 (2023),

When Morena’s desire to assume the Rusty’s lease came back before council for the March 26, 2024 council meeting, Brock returned $161 to Morena on March 20 to try to cure the violation so that he could participate in the closed session item. However, the law clearly states that the official only has 14 days to cure the violation by returning the amount over $250.

(2) (A) Subject to subparagraph (B), if an officer accepts, solicits, or directs a contribution of more than two hundred fifty dollars ($250) during the 12 months after the date a final decision is rendered in the proceeding in violation of subdivision (b), the officer may cure the violation by returning the contribution, or the portion of the contribution in excess of two hundred fifty dollars ($250), within 14 days of accepting, soliciting, or directing the contribution, whichever comes latest.

CA Govt Code § 84308 (2023)

By the time Brock made the partial refund to Morena, 81 days had already elapsed. This timeline is provided directly by Brock in this letter to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) seeking advice on whether he’d sufficiently cured the violation in order to be able to participate in closed session on Morena’s business before the city. 

In this letter, Brock also claims that he had no idea that Morena’s business was still pending before the city following the January 2023 closed session meeting. This does not pass the smell test, as the attachments to one of today’s closed session items show that Morena was threatening litigation against the city in April 2023 and again in May 2023. Brock mischaracterized this in his letter to the FPPC, calling it “negotiations…off and on”. Records obtained through a Public Records Act Request document that council was aware of the threat of litigation by Morena, as it shows Councilmembers Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick were in contact both by email and by telephone with Morena’s lawyers regarding this matter. Neither of them were the mayor or mayor pro tem (now called vice mayor) in 2023, so knowledge of this lawsuit was not available to them on any sort of privileged basis within council (the mayor and vice mayor control the agenda for city council meetings).

Given the chain of events available via public record and the posted city council agenda, this was a clear attempt by Morena to influence Brock on this matter. Adding to the appearance of impropriety, city staff has confirmed that this matter hasn’t gone before the Pier Corporation yet, which would be the normal process for anyone seeking to lease a property on the Pier. We should all expect any councilmember, let alone our mayor, to have the decency to recuse themselves from business before council when there’s not just a strong appearance of conflict of interest but a clear violation of the law by the councilmember.

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