State tags Wahl

Councilmember fined for seven counts of violating political laws

I NEED A DRINK Councilmember Larry Wahl contemplates his options at the last Chico City Council meeting, held two days before the state Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $12,000.

I NEED A DRINK Councilmember Larry Wahl contemplates his options at the last Chico City Council meeting, held two days before the state Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $12,000.

Photo By Tom Angel

What took so long? The FPPC is an 80-member organization that is still reviewing and revising its conflict-of-interest regulations. Each year an estimated 100,000 Californians fill out the financial-interest declaration known as Form 700.

Money may grease the wheels of politics, but handled improperly that lubricant can also lead to a nasty slip. Just ask Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl.

Last week the state Fair Political Practices Commission handed Wahl a $12,000 fine for seven violations of the state’s political reform act made while he was a planning commissioner.

Half of the charges are rooted in Wahl’s unsuccessful 1998 run for City Council, during which he received donations of $1,000 each from three developers who regularly handed out such help to conservative, pro-growth candidates. Wahl lost the race but remained on the commission and over the next year voted on four housing projects involving the same three developers.

State law says a planning commissioner may not vote on a project involving a campaign contributor who gave $250 or more to that commissioner within the previous 12 months.

According to the FPPC’s case, on Sept. 2, 1998, Wahl went to the office of developer John D. Drake, owner of Drake Homes, and asked for a campaign contribution. Drake responded with $1,000. Two days later, the FPPC report says, Wahl visited the office of developer Greg Webb, where he asked for and received another $1,000 contribution.

He then contacted by phone Edward “Rocco” Ritchie, CEO of Ritchie Construction, Inc., asking for a contribution. On Oct. 16 Wahl received a $1,000 contribution from Louise Ritchie, secretary/vice president of Ritchie Homes.

Four months later, after losing his race for a council seat, Planning Commissioner Wahl voted against an appeal of an administrative use permit that allowed Drake Homes not to adhere to city setback limits in a project on Legacy Lane.

Jolene Dietle, the commission’s chairwoman, abstained because Drake had business with the bank for which she worked. Wahl, vice chairman of the commission, not only failed to disclose his $1,000 contribution from Drake, but also, acting in Dietle’s stead, introduced the item and voted against the appeal and then in favor of granting Drake the setback exceptions.

One week later Wahl made the motion to approve a subdivision map for a 135-unit single-family-home subdivision Webb wanted to build at The Esplanade and Shasta Avenue. He failed to disclose the $1,000 contribution from Webb.

Three weeks after that, Wahl did it again, this time voting to approve a 37-lot subdivision by Ritchie Homes called Stratford Estates at the intersection of Cussick and Henshaw avenues. Once again he failed to disclose receipt of a $1,000 contribution.

Then, on Sept. 13, 1999, just a half-month before the statute of limitations on the campaign contribution restriction expired, Wahl again voted on a Drake Homes project and failed to disclose the Drake campaign contribution. The project called for 89 single-family lots on 18 acres at Ceres Avenue and Eaton Road. The project required a General Plan amendment rezone, which city staff recommended against.

This time, with Dietle and Commissioner Ross Bradford excusing themselves for conflicts of interest, Wahl made a motion to direct staff to complete an environmental-impact review of the project. The motion failed. Commissioner Kirk Monfort then made a motion to deny the project, which passed with Wahl voting “no.”

The irony here is that City Council candidates are not held to the same standard of disclosure and conflict as are planning commissioners. Had Wahl not lost his bid for council in 1998, he would not have violated state law, even if the same contributors came to the council for a decision and Wahl voted.

In recent years, liberal councilmembers, who don’t receive big developer contributions, have tried and failed to impose a rule requiring disclosure when a large campaign contributor has business before the council.

Such efforts have been stymied by the conservatives. However, one recent campaign reform reduced the maximum campaign contribution from $1,000 to $500.

The other three counts against Wahl come from his failure to disclose, in 1997, 1998 and 1999, his wife Mary’s investments and property assets on his annual statements of economic interests.

The FPPC says the reason for the financial-disclosure law “is that public officials should perform their duties in an impartial manner, free from bias caused by their own financial interests or the financial interests of those persons who have supported them.”

The complaint against Wahl was filed in 2000 by former newspaper publisher and muckraker Tim Bousquet, the one-man band behind the Chico Examiner. Bousquet gave up the paper two years ago and moved to Oregon. He has since traveled to Arkansas, where he works for a small-town daily paper.

Bousquet’s complaint said that Wahl’s failure to disclose the fact that his wife owned five properties, including one that’s leased to the U.S. Postal Service in downtown Chico, on the required financial disclosure form is a violation of conflict-of-interest law.

Wahl also failed for three years in a row to list the fact that his wife is part-owner of Fanno Saw Works, which also owns four parcels of property. Both the company and the properties are valued at between $100,000 and $1 million, the FPPC report said. On July 12, 2001, at the request of the FPPC, Wahl filed an amendment to his statement of economic interest.

He told the FPPC that he did not realize he had to include spouse’s property received through inheritance.

The FPPC concluded that Wahl had “actively solicited each of his campaign contributions that gave rise to his violations, and he was personally aware that the Planning Commission decisions involved parties that had made recent contributions to his City Council campaign.”

But it also said there was no evidence that Wahl profited from his votes or that he was aware of the state law that forbade him from voting on these items.

The commission went on to say that Wahl’s failure to disclose all of his economic interests was a serious violation because, without such disclosure, “the public faces a more formidable challenge in ferreting out conflict-of-interest violations.”

It is not clear if Bousquet’s complaint led to the investigation into Wahl’s voting record in 1999, which in turn led to four of the seven counts against him.

Theis Finlev, an executive fellow with the commission, said he could not comment on who filed the complaint, noting that to do so would likely discourage future whistleblowers.

Wahl could have been fined $14,000 for the seven counts, but the commission ruled that his violations “appear to have resulted from a lack of understanding of the law, rather than from an intent to evade its requirements.”

So he received a “slightly mitigated” fine of $12,000.

Wahl left a message with the News & Review just before press-time saying the “fine seems pretty steep.”

“But I’ll take responsibility," he said. "We’ll move on. That’s about all there is to it. Glad it’s finally over."