COD Lawyer Accuses Promises Made-Promises Broken of Breaking Laws

A College of the Desert attorney accuses a group of local activists of violating California’s political reform law by sending out flyers and promoting social media ads criticizing board trustees and raising protests. questions about how the college spends the bond money, without disclosing who funds the direct mail and announcements.

The attorney will make a presentation on the matter to the COD board during a “study session” at Friday’s board meeting. The activist group in question is called Promises Made-Promises Broken. The organization is a self-declared “watchdog group” and a registered 501(c)(4) organization.

Promises Made-Promises Broken launched a print and digital media campaign in December criticizing COD’s plans for more than $950 million in capital projects funded by Measure B and Measure CC, two bond measures approved by residents of Coachella Valley in 2004 and 2016.

The group then sent letters in English and Spanish to likely voters in the Coachella Valley, accusing the college of “abandoning”, “blocking” or “cancelling” several planned bond projects which, according to him, were promised to voters, like a Palm Springs campus including a restaurant. /school of hotel management and an automotive technology campus in Cathedral City (which the college’s board of trustees has since voted to move forward).

In January, Promises Made-Promises Broken promoted a 30-second ad on social media alleging COD executives were operating in “deception.” The announcement called on COD President/Superintendent Martha Garcia and three of the college’s five trustees — Ruben Perez, Aurora Wilson and Bea Gonzalez — to step down. Those three directors voted to appoint Garcia last summer in a decision that split the five-member board.

Friday’s COD board meeting agenda included a presentation from Meredith Brown, a partner at the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. It was taken offline on Thursday afternoon. The Desert Sun uploaded a copy of the original file uploaded.

In the presentation, Brown says that Promises Made-Promises Broken issued “communications that constitute political advertising regarding COD’s facility bond program and operations (which) were issued within 60 days of an election.” .

Brown says the documents identify elected directors by name and photograph and call for their resignation, but fail to identify the source of campaign funding in violation of the law.

Promises Made-Promises Broken argues that he did nothing illegal and that Brown is wrong.

A lawyer for the group sent a letter to COD General Counsel Carlos Campos around 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The attorney, Cary Davidson, of Reed & Davidson, a Los Angeles-based law firm, argues that Promises Made-Promises Broken is “fully compliant with the Political Reform Act.”

Davidson noted that Independent Spending “expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identifiable candidate or measure, or taken as a whole, within 60 days of an election in which a candidate or measure is on the ballot, calls for a particular outcome in this election.” However, he pointed out that COD directors will not be elected in the June 7 primary, but that the seats currently held by Perez and Wilson will be elected in november.

“Public education communications made by Promises Made, Promises Broken do not relate to any candidate or measure on the June ballot,” he wrote. “The next upcoming election for College of the Desert trustees is the general election scheduled for November 8, 2022, which will feature candidates for Zone 1 Trustee and Zone 4 Trustee.” Perez represents Zone 1 and Wilson represents Zone 4.

Davidson acknowledged that Promises Made-Promises Broken is “unhappy” with certain actions taken by the board, but said “expressing that displeasure without the ability of voters to vote on the matter is not a violation.” campaign finance law.

Davidson then went further, warning COD administrators against using taxpayer funds to defend their political careers, which would be a violation of state law.

It’s not clear from the letter whether the band accuses the COD administrators of having already done so, but Davidson concludes by writing, “We urge you to inform yourself of applicable law.”

Asked why COD trustees will hear Brown’s presentation on Friday, College spokesperson Nicholas Robles said, “At a previous meeting, Trustee Gonzalez asked College counsel to provide a report verifying that applicable laws regarding transparent civic engagement are followed on matters related to This report was generated by Meredith Brown, partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, the firm is acting as legal counsel to the College on installation projects and related matters.

Robles said the report made no recommendation about whether the college should take legal action against Promises Made-Promises Broken. Brown’s report includes a disclaimer at the end stating that it “is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching any conclusion in any particular area of ​​law. The applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ significantly depending on individual situations”.

Promises Made-Promises Broken spokesperson Bruce Hoban released a statement to The Desert Sun on Thursday lambasting Brown’s presentation.

“This May 20 attack on the citizen watchdog group Promises Made, Promises Broken is just the latest wasteful expense by President Martha Garcia and the College of the Desert Trustees! The fact is that the COD President and Trustees are the ones doing electioneering, and they are paying lawyers with public funds to defend their favorite COD directors through bogus accusations designed to distract the public from the real problem – the dark history of the COD leadership. broken promises to students and taxpayers in the Coachella Valley. Let the light shine. Stop COD leaders trying to muzzle citizen groups who are finally exposing COD’s mismanagement and shameful spending.”

The group’s criticism of the university goes back months

In February, Promises Made-Promises Broken hosted a Zoom conference call to raise concerns about COD’s bond management. The virtual meeting drew 150 residents, as well as Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton and Cathedral City Mayor Ernesto Gutierrez. Both spoke at the session.

Since December, Hoban has repeatedly refused requests from The Desert Sun to release information about the group’s operations. He declined to comment Thursday on how much money the group has raised and how many donors it has. He said the group had “a lot” of members.

Hoban argues, contrary to the college’s allegations, that Promises Made-Promises Broken is under no obligation to disclose such information.

The Desert Sun asked Hoban if the responsible thing for the group to do would be to release this information regardless of legal debate, considering that Promises Made-Promises Broken was founded around the issue of defending college transparency, but the group itself remains opaque. .

“No, because you know, there’s all kinds of people involved from different political parties, from different walks of life, you know, and they just want the college fixed,” Hoban said. “And, you know, they don’t want and shouldn’t have, you know, the discussion about them. The discussion is about COD.”

Group leader says he’s ‘not worried’

In his board presentation included in the Agenda Folder, Brown first defends COD’s bond program, then attacks Promises Made-Promises Broken.

She says the school meets financial, performance and accountability requirements, and says independent financial and performance audits of the bond program produced no audit findings. She says COD’s capital improvement program meets best practices, citing the college’s adoption of a facilities plan and its Citizenship Obligations Oversight Committee, as well as ongoing dialogue between the community of the campus, the board of directors, the oversight committee, the administrators and other stakeholders.

But even some members of the Citizenship Bond Oversight Committee have raised questions about COD’s transparency. For example, in December, Oversight Committee member Margie Eklund said that “the college’s lack of transparency is truly appalling.”

And, in March, critics called a meeting of the Oversight Committee to express concern that the Oversight Committee itself may be withholding information from the public and unnecessarily limiting public comment – ​​perhaps in violation of state law.

In his presentation, Brown suggests that the Promises Made-Promises Broken documents represent spending and advertising that does not meet the standards set by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Brown argues that a communication expressly advocates supporting or opposing a clearly identified candidate in the following scenarios:

  • The communication uses words such as “vote for”, “elect”, “vote for” or “defeat”.
  • The communication is made within 60 days before an election and the communication refers to a clearly identified candidate…so that when taken as a whole, unambiguously suggests only one meaning which is to urge a particular outcome of an election.

In his presentation, Brown says penalties of up to $5,000 per violation can be imposed for violating the Political Reform Act, including for failing to file campaign statements.

Hoban said he was “not at all concerned” about the group receiving one or more of these violations.

Friday’s COD Board meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. in Palm Desert and can be streamed live at the following link: collegeofthedesert-edu.zoom.us/j/95625979578.

Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Contact him at [email protected] or @Writes_Jonathan.