Fined before reelection

Two Sacramento school board incumbents were hit with big fines last year for violating California campaign laws—and it won’t matter

Two of the heftiest fines issued last year by the California Fair Political Practices Commission went against two Sacramento area school board members who are favored to win reelection next month.

But the timing of the fines, doled out years after the violations occurred, raises fairness questions both for the candidates who must now defend themselves against past misdeeds and for voters who could have used this knowledge earlier.

In July, the FPPC fined Twin Rivers Unified School District trustee Linda Fowler $3,500 for violating the Political Reform Act’s conflict of interest laws in 2014. A month earlier, the commission doled out a $2,000 fine to Sacramento County Board of Education trustee Harold Fong, who failed to file timely campaign statements twice in 2018.

Fowler and Fong are both on the March 3 ballot to represent their respective Area 7 constituencies—in Fong’s case, without competition.

That’s not so for Fowler, who has represented the north Sacramento area on one school board or another since 1971. She faces challenges from two candidates who say she’s out of touch and disengaged from her constituents.

Meanwhile, the FPPC fines shed light on investigations into political wrongdoing in Sacramento County—and how long they can take to conclude.

Complaints and referrals to the FPPC’s Enforcement Division dropped from 2,881 in 2018 to 2,243 in 2019. But there are still only so many cases that investigators can complete in 12 months.

The FPPC successfully prosecuted 240 cases across California last year. Twenty-two of those—or 9%—happened in Sacramento County, making it the fifth most politically corrupt county in California by that metric, behind only Los Angeles (66 prosecutions), San Diego (29), Orange (27) and Santa Clara (23).

The FPPC issued a total of $37,970 in fines to Sacramento politicians, political candidates, lobbyists and consultants, amounting to less than 5% of the $797,384 in fines around the state, all of which goes into the general fund.

Among those accruing small fines for not filing necessary campaign documents were a Sacramento Metro Fire board director, a Folsom arts commissioner, a Galt school board member, Twin Rivers school board trustee Michelle Rivas and Citrus Heights City Councilman Bret Daniels—the only person dinged twice last year, once in his current position and once as a candidate for sheriff in 2018.

The third and fourth biggest fines in Sacramento County went to Fowler and Fong, who expressed contrition and says he’s gotten better at navigating the state’s electronic filing system.

“I do my own reports,” he said. “I’m just really sorry that there was a lapse. … I have no one to blame.”

While Fong has filed numerous financial disclosures since, Fowler hasn’t reported receiving any campaign donations since Jan. 31, 2018.

Fowler, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has been called to the mat before. In 2016, the Sacramento County grand jury, following reports by The Sacramento Bee, concluded that Fowler used her position to steer a $390,000 charter school consulting contract to her firm, one that guaranteed payment regardless of whether she did any consulting or not.

It took the FPPC four years to complete its investigation determining that this was true.

In a statement, FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said the division “does its utmost to take care of all cases in both a timely and a thorough manner. One can’t cut corners simply to abide by a time frame, but we are also very cognizant of the need for timeliness, especially around elections. The public and those involved deserve to have things done in a timely manner, but also deserve to have investigations be thorough and comprehensive.”

According to the FPPC’s order issued over the summer, the Twin Rivers Unified School District board of trustees—on which Fowler served—approved Highlands Community Charter and Technical Schools’ petition to create a subsidiary school in 2014 to help students obtain their GEDs.

Fowler was appointed to be the Twin Rivers representative on the Highlands board of trustees. Later that same year, she founded a consulting firm, which then applied for a five-year contract from the new charter school.

According to the FPPC, meeting minutes show another Highlands trustee, Jacob Walker, raised concerns about that being construed as “a gift of public funds” and called attention to a contract stipulation that required Fowler’s company to be paid $6,500 a month no matter how many consulting hours it actually provided.

The FPPC says Fowler defended the contract but didn’t vote on it, which the FPPC labeled “a mistaken belief that there could be no conflict of interest if she abstained from voting.”

After the Highlands board approved the contract, Fowler submitted two $6,500 invoices in which she requested payment “ASAP.” Highlands canceled the contract after making those two payments.

The FPPC began its investigation in 2015, and took four years to conclude that Fowler violated conflict of interest laws by using her public office to secure the lucrative contract for her personal business.

It also states that Fowler claimed she didn’t keep any of the $13,000 in invoiced funds that went directly to her. According to the FPPC, Fowler says that after cashing the checks, she gave the money to her business partner Angelica Tellechea. But there are no documents to support this version of events, the FPPC noted.

The FPPC called Fowler “a sophisticated party … who should have known about the potential for a conflict of interest.”

Fowler holds a law degree and worked as a financial auditor for both the Franchise Tax Board and California Attorney General’s Office, the FPPC noted. She has also been a school board official since 1971, well before Twin Rivers Unified formed in 2008 out of the remains of four school districts. Fong says that only happened after the state rejected a different consolidation plan championed by Fowler—one that would have created two districts separated by Interstate 80, segregating the haves from the have-nots.

“Linda, she really needs to be off that board, but the voters reelect her no matter what she does,” Fong said.

Two challengers hope to change that: property manager Daniel Savala and Head Start teacher Sascha Vogt. Both have children attending schools in the district and both say they’d be more responsive than the decade-plus incumbent they’re trying to unseat.

Daniel Savala

Sascha Vogt

Savala said the FPPC fine is “fair game” for criticism, but that he’s focusing on other ways to draw a distinction with Fowler.

“Linda Fowler has been absent at every single moment when we were trying to pull this community together,” Savala told SN&R.

Vogt says the school district and its superintendent have avoided taking action regarding Fowler’s double-dipping by citing the ongoing FPPC investigation. “Well, it’s been resolved for quite a few months now,” Vogt said.

Many challenges await whoever wins the seat. The Twin Rivers school board narrowly backed off from a staff recommendation to close nine schools as a way to trim a nearly $4 million deficit last month, but that issue may not be going away soon, especially if Proposition 13, a $15 billion statewide school bond, fails to pass next month. The bond offers $9 billion for preschool and K-12 schools, especially those impacted by overcrowding.

Vogt said she believes the school district was trying to close schools to worsen overcrowding and better position itself for some of the bond money. She also argues that the district’s own data shows that enrollment declines will start to reverse in a couple of years and that closing schools would be a “life-altering change for a short-term problem.”

Savala says he wants to take a hard look at why the district is continuing to fund its own police force and hold onto vacant buildings.

“First and foremost, I don’t think any school district should fund a police department. Period. And we’re the only school district doing this,” Savala said. “I’m not saying we don’t need a security presence. … But is this the best way to spend our dollars?”

Vogt doesn’t think the FPPC fine will matter much this election. She describes herself as a parent first with children who have attended district schools since 1995, including two who have graduated from Grant Union High School.

“I have a vested interest and some skin in the game,” she said. “It is my children’s future at stake.”

Vogt has been active during that time, helping call attention to broken heating and air conditioning units at Grant in 2014 and pushing for tuberculosis testing at the high school that same year.

“The district has this history of not taking the community [pulse] on anything,” Vogt said. “You have some archaic wisdom with some archaic board members. They really seem to be governing rather than representing.”

Savala also challenged Fowler in June 2016, when the district first shifted from at-large to district elections, but came in a close third. Savala says the 1,560 votes he and Francisco Garcia split that year proved there was more support for someone other than Fowler, who won with just shy of 1,200 votes.

He expected to face Fowler head-to-head on March 3, but then Vogt filed to run.

“Here we go—two weeks to go, 21 days to go—and we’ll see if we split the vote,” Savala said Monday.

Vogt isn’t worried about that prospect.

“I’ll be in the board room either way,” the educator and activist said. “I’m not going anywhere.”