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Fact Check: An Investigation in Name Only

A campaign mailer targeting City Council candidate Georgette Gomez claims she’s “currently under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failure to disclose her financial interests, as required by state law.”

MisleadingStatement: “City Council candidate Georgette Gomez is currently under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failure to disclose her financial interests, as required by state law.” – A campaign mailer sent by a group opposing District 9 City Council candidate Georgette Gomez called Public Safety Advocates

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: There are watchdog government agencies across the country created to investigate complaints of wrongdoing. They exist for very good reason but, come election time, their work is often exploited by political operatives.

That’s because if a complaint – regardless of its merit – is filed about someone’s actions, these watchdogs rightly investigate the complaint. As long as a complaint case remains open, the object of the complaint is “under investigation.” That means it’s safe to attack a candidate for being “under investigation” – no matter how politically motivated, trivial or even frivolous the initial complaint might be.

The anti-Gomez mailer at issue was paid for by Public Safety Advocates, a group funded by development and business interests. Donors to the group include the developers of the Lilac Hills Ranch project in Valley Center, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, among others.

In this case, Ken Moser, a frequent complaint-filer who has targeted Democratic candidates, filed two complaints against Gomez, one with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the state ethics watchdog, and another with the city Ethics Commission.

Moser contends that Gomez failed to disclose all of her and her partner’s sources of income on financial disclosure forms she filed as a member of the City Heights Redevelopment Project Area Committee between March 2010 and April 2012.

Gomez filed financial disclosures then, but she did not disclose every source of income she or her partner received.

Gomez is a community activist at the Environmental Health Coalition, a role she’s touted proudly throughout her current campaign. When she entered the City Council race, she listed income from that job on a new financial disclosure she filed. She also listed her partner’s income from the Alternative Health Network and Reproductive Wellness. But she disclosed none of those sources on older financial disclosures she filed when she was on the City Heights project area committee several years ago.

Within a matter of days, the city Ethics Commission reached a conclusion about whether she erred by failing to say that on those old forms: No, she was in the clear.

Gomez did not have to disclose all her sources of income or her partner’s sources of income at the time, the Ethics Commission found. That’s because members of some smaller city boards do not have to disclose every source of income they have, just those that might be conflicts related their position. Moser’s complaint also involved actions beyond the city commission’s three-year statute of limitations.

The Ethics Commission received Moser’s complaint on Sept. 2. The case was closed on Sept. 7.

“It’s a big nothing burger, is how I read it,” said Gil Cabrera, a former chair of the commission. (Cabrera has given money to both Gomez and her opponent in the District 9 race, Ricardo Flores.)

Cabrera said the city and state commissions often reach the same conclusion. If that were true, Gomez would be entirely in the clear.

But the Fair Political Practices Commission generally takes longer to process complaints, and it has a longer statute of limitations. On Tuesday, the state commission said in a letter that Gomez did not have to disclose her partner’s income. There is still an ongoing back-and-forth between the commission staff and Moser over whether Gomez had to disclose her own source of income on the old forms.

The state commission’s review is known as an “investigation,” so it’s technically true Gomez’s actions are “under investigation.” But since some of these investigations are perfunctory, the meaning of the word varies from serious to nearly meaningless. Were it not for the fact that the word “investigation” could be used against her, the complaint that initiated it may never have been filed.

In an email, Moser said his complaint against Gomez is “completely legitimate” because Gomez’s employer, the Environmental Health Coalition, does business with the city and it’s “hard to imagine” Gomez shouldn’t have had to disclose that source of income.

Moser has antagonized other candidates with similar filings. This year, he filed a state elections complaint against an Oceanside city councilwoman because one campaign finance report listed a donor as “self-employed” rather than listing the name of the donor’s business, according to the Union-Tribune.

Gomez’s campaign dismissed Moser as a “political hatchet man.”

We find a claim misleading when it takes an element of truth and badly distorts it or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.

That’s the case with this mailer. At best, the complaint against Gomez constitutes an election season bit of nitpicking for paperwork filed several years ago. At worst, it’s taking advantage of an agency meant to ensure fair elections and using its standard due diligence as the basis for unfair attacks.

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