Mayor Jesse Arreguín takes issue with “the framing” of alleged violations. Photo: Courtesy Jesse Arreguín

Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission will discuss tonight whether Mayor Jesse Arreguín violated local election laws when his campaign manager spent $3,339.66 on supplies for his campaign but was not reimbursed within 45 days.

Jacquelyn McCormick, who served as manager and campaign treasurer, and is now a senior advisor to Arreguín, paid for yard signs, phone services, pastries, water, printing, and supplies on 18 separate occasions during Arreguín’s run for mayor in 2016. The campaign committee did not have its own ATM card, and was sometimes short of cash, so McCormick found it easier to pay with her own credit card, she told the commission in a letter.

The expenditures were made from June to December 2016, but the campaign only paid McCormick back on Aug 7, 2017. Berkeley law requires reimbursements to be made and reported within 45 days or the expenditures convert to non-monetary donations. And, as McCormick had already donated the legal limit of $250 to the campaign in late 2015, Arreguín is facing 18 possible campaign violations. His campaign committee faces a possible $18,000 fine, according to a report filed by the commission secretary.

Arreguín said Thursday that he took issue with “the framing” of the alleged Berkeley Election Reform Act (BERA) violations because levying 18 counts against him made it seem like there had been massive violations. In fact, his campaign made one mistake and repeated it 18 times, he said.

“I have to take issue with the frame,” said Arreguín. “Yes, technically because there were 18 things being reimbursed the secretary is saying there were 18 specific violations. By saying we broke the law 18 times, it implies that there were tons of gross violations of the election law.”

Arreguín said neither he nor McCormick were aware that reimbursements had to be made within 45 days. McCormick was extremely busy during the campaign, managing more than 100 volunteers and having to enter more than 1,200 donations into the database, among other tasks, he said.

“It was an inadvertent mistake,” said Arreguín.

However, Deputy City Attorney Savith Iyengar, acting as FCPC secretary, sent a letter to Arreguín on Sept. 16, 2016, about his 2014 race for City Council. In that letter, Iyengar repeatedly pointed out instances in which Arreguín had not reimbursed people in a timely manner, which might mean the expenses could be converted to donations.

Arreguín has run for office in Berkeley numerous times. McCormick has run for Berkeley mayor and for City Council.

The FCPC can decide tonight whether mistakes were made and consider whether the alleged campaign violations were deliberate or accidental. The Commission can decide whether to hold a hearing on the BERA violations or direct its secretary to enter into a stipulated agreement with Arreguín.

City staff has concluded that there is sufficient evidence to find that Arreguín violated BERA.

“Staff’s investigation finds adequate evidence to conclude that the committee committed eighteen violations of BMC section 2.12.415 by accepting eighteen nonmonetary contributions from Ms. McCormick in excess of BERA’s $250.00 contribution limit,” according to the staff report.

If the FCPC finds that BERA was violated, it can order Arreguín’s campaign to pay $3,339.66, the amount of the violations, into Berkeley’s Fair Elections Fund. The FCPC also has the authority to issue penalties up to $18,000.

The mayor said he and McCormick have fully cooperated with the FCPC and he hopes to reach a stipulated settlement.

The FCPC also alerted Arreguín of other issues of “non-compliance” with BERA that happened during his 2014 City Council campaign, including not including the correct address or occupation of donors.

In September, City Councilman Ben Bartlett reached an agreement with the FCPC in which he acknowledged he violated BERA by taking a $10,000 loan from his wife, Yelda Bartlett after she had already contributed the maximum donation of $250. Only candidates, not their spouses, can lend funds to a campaign. The funds came from a bank account held by both Bartlett and his wife, but only Yelda Bartlett signed the check. Bartlett then mailed 6,021 pieces of campaign literature, at a cost of $4,195.40, without adding a “major funding paid for” disclosure.

The FCPC ordered Bartlett to pay a $50 fine for the violations.

That fine contrasts sharply with a fine proposed for the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, the political arm of the Berkeley Property Owners Association. During the 2016 election, the Independent Expenditure Committee Supporting Nate Wollman and Judy Hunt (running for the Rent Board) failed to disclose within 24 hours that it had twice spent $9,450 on campaign paraphernalia. Zach Cowan, who was then City Attorney, suggested an $890 fine. The FCPC rejected that suggestion and voted in July to direct the secretary to enter an agreement for the maximum fine of $18,900. The FCPC has not implemented that fine and will now hold a public hearing on the issue.

The FCPC meets tonight at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.

Update 11/20: The FCPC made a determination of probable cause that the candidate-controlled committee Arreguín for Mayor committed 18 violations of Berkeley election law, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. The FCPC will consider what action to take, if any, against the committee at a future meeting. 

Update: This article originally said McCormick paid for airline tickets; that was incorrect. We also added information about Bartlett’s stipulation later.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...