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Campaign money laundering complaint filed in Board of Equalization race

Four weeks ago, SactoPolitico broke the story about the ethically challenged Democratic Board of Equalization incumbent Mike Schaefer donating $30,000 to a little-known Southern California conservative PAC. This was done despite Schaefer being endorsed by the California Democratic Party and running against fellow Democrat David Dodson in the Nov. 8 election.

Though the Schaefer campaign denied it, the goal of their large donation seemed clear: get conservative help to sway Republican votes toward Schaefer in his Nov. 8 Dem-on-Dem runoff. But how exactly this would be achieved was less immediately clear. But one possibility recently emerged when the San Diego County GOP issued a mailer smearing Dodson and urging Republicans to vote against him.

On Oct. 11, the Dodson campaign responded by filing a complaint with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission citing violations of campaign money laundering regulations. Dodson cited the following money chain.

State campaign finance filings show Schaefer’s campaign donated $30,000 on Aug. 19 to the conservative group Citizens for a Better East County. (“East County” refers to the less populated eastern part of San Diego County including communities such as El Cajon and La Mesa.) A month later on Sept. 14, this group made its largest donation ever of $12,500 to the San Diego County GOP. A few weeks later, the county GOP sent out its Republican “voter guide” mailer that included urging Republicans to vote against Dodson.

When SactoPolitico contacted the Schaeffer campaign last month about the original $30,000 donation to the conservative East County PAC, Schaeffer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the donation and left such decisions to his campaign team. His campaign manager Chris Castillo then subsequently declared, “I want to be clear. Citizens for a Better East County is not a Republican Organization.”

Castillo claimed this despite being presented with state filing data that showed in its history Citizens for a Better East County has only donated to conservative candidates and causes. Plus the group’s own leadership acknowledged to SactoPolitico being “united” with the local Republican Party.

Before the anti-Dodson mailer went out last month, SactoPolitico also contacted the San Diego County GOP about both the Schaefer and Citizens for a Better East County donations. At that time, county GOP executive director Jordan Gascon denied any of the $12,500 that they received from the East County group was earmarked for any specific purpose and, “as for Schaefer, we do not support Democrats.”

However, the subsequent mailer suggests a clear preference by the San Diego County GOP of one Democrat (Schaefer) over another (Dodson). Multiple attempts to reach Gascon to clarify his previous comments and answer questions about his group’s mailer were not returned.

When reached by email, Citizens for a Better East County president Darrin Mroz said of Dodson’s FPPC complaint, “Our attorney filed a response. We expect the FPPC to dismiss that complaint.” He added, “I don’t know who Dodson is. I never met him. I never heard his name until I read the complaint. I have no axe to grind with him.”

Regarding the appearance that his group may have been used to route money to the San Diego County GOP in support of Schaefer, Mroz said, “All of our donations to the Republican Party support the party’s efforts to turn out voters to defeat the Biden-AOC agenda. We are also united with the Republican Party to support East County school board candidates to restore accountability to the classroom. We do not support the left’s plan to eliminate grades as a measure of student achievement.”

The California Board of Equalization administers the state’s property tax system and oversees the 58 county assessors. Schaefer and Dodson are running for the District 4 seat that covers the southern-most counties of Imperial, Orange, Riverside and San Diego, and a small part of southwest San Bernardino County including Chino Hills, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga.

Schaefer has a checkered history featuring a domestic abuse conviction, being a heavily fined “slumlord,” and having been disbarred in two states. Earlier this year, he also admitted to SactoPolitico lying in speeches and on his official candidate statement about being endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. This led him to quickly file a revised official candidate statement right before a March deadline that removed references to claimed endorsements by Newsom and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, whose offices both denied endorsing Schaefer. A claimed endorsement from labor and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta was also removed.

In terms of the San Diego County GOP mailer, this week Dodson told SactoPolitico that pretty much everything about him in it is false.

The piece features a “socialist checklist” and checks off Dodson’s supposed socialist bonafides. But Dodson said he is unaware of being endorsed by any socialists or socialist groups as the mailer claims. He said he is also not a career politician. He ran for the Board of Equalization in the 2018 primary, but otherwise has never appeared on a ballot. Instead, he is a 30-year staff veteran of the Board of Equalization and manages the agency’s Southern California office, which is not a politically appointed position.

“Also my career has been all about protecting Prop 13 and not increasing property taxes. So those two statements that I wish to get rid of Prop 13 and increase property taxes are just outright, bald-faced lies,” Dodson said.

And regarding the mailer’s claim that he supports “unions over people,” he said “first, unions are comprised of people.” Second, he noted both he and Schaefer have union endorsements. Dodson was endorsed by Orange County Labor Federation and California Federation of Labor, and Schaefer by Unite Here Local 11. Plus Schaefer previously claimed being endorsed by Huerta.

“Philosophically, I am a progressive Democrat. I have been endorsed by the Progressive Democrats of America, and some other progressive groups. I am proud of all the groups that have endorsed me, but I haven’t received an endorsement from any group with ‘socialist’ in its name,” he said.

Recently other electoral activities by Citizens for a Better East County have receive great scrutiny. This included two of their mailers deceptively labeled as a “Democratic Voter Guide” and featuring Democratic blue color. The pieces mix the names of well-known top-of-the-ticket Democrats like Gov. Gavin Newsom with local GOP-endorsed candidates.

As reported by The Times of San Diego, the San Diego County Democratic Party recently issued a cease-and-desist letter, and an attorney for the East County group responded that the East County group had agreed to not send out any more mailers “of this type.”

One mailer was sent to voters in the East County community of La Mesa. Another one went to voters in Carlsbad, which is not located in eastern San Diego County. The Carlsbad mailer appeared extra deceptive as it associated the conservative candidates with generally liberal positions such as “climate action” and “reproductive rights” that none of the candidates would confirm holding.

The Carlsbad mailer included mention of the GOP candidate for State Education Superintendent Lance Christensen. His campaign manager Scott Carpenter denied any association with the mailer. He added that he has seen lots of games like this performed by partisan players on both sides.

“We witness this a lot. One we are dealing with right now is the web site, which lets you complete a survey about your positions on different issues and connects you with candidates you align with. Somebody filled out Lance’s profile on the site, and it was all progressive stuff. We actually have been trying to have the state party lawyers contact the website to take it down,” he said.

Carpenter said he is concerned by campaign games like this because they both falsely portray his candidate’s positions and misinforms voters.

“It’s just not the right thing to do,” Carpenter said. “Both sides do it. It’s not something I do, but you can’t control everybody.”

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