Seven weeks before L.A.'s 2015 municipal election, political aide Caesar Huerta was on the hunt for campaign donations.
His boss, City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, needed contributions from 200 of her constituents to make her campaign eligible for up to $100,000 in taxpayer funds. Huerta, a field deputy, turned to aunts, uncles, cousins and others in his immediate circle, asking for as little as $5, according to several members of his extended family.
Since then, Huerta and at least eight of his relatives have been questioned by FBI agents, called to appear before a federal grand jury, or both, family members told The Times.
"I'm not really into politics. I was doing this to support him and his cause," said Panorama City resident Alexandra Galarza, one of at least 18 Huerta relatives listed in city records as Martinez donors. "I never thought giving $5 would make me go to federal court."
Huerta, 30, is one of at least five lower-level Martinez staffers who solicited and collected $5 and $10 contributions to the councilwoman's re-election effort, according to interviews with several of her constituents in the San Fernando Valley. Those small contributions, part of a federal grand jury investigation, were a major factor in Martinez's success in collecting $65,360 in taxpayer "matching funds" for her campaign.
Ethics experts say it's not uncommon for elected officials to have their own in-house political staff volunteering on their re-election campaigns. Such efforts are generally allowed under city and state law if they are conducted outside an employee's regular work hours, such as weekends or during vacation time.
But those politicians can run into trouble if investigators determine that their staff used government resources — work time, computers or other taxpayer-funded equipment — to engage in campaign activities.
"Obviously, if there were campaign violations, and those were done by a city staffer, that looks worse because it's [the councilwoman's] professional staff," said attorney Gary Winuk, who previously handled enforcement duties for the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.
The target of the federal investigation into San Fernando Valley campaign activities remains unclear.
Huerta, a resident of Arleta, had no comment when contacted by The Times, and Martinez declined to discuss the grand jury's efforts. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office also had no comment.
In April, an aide to U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) — who backed Martinez in her 2013 and 2015 campaigns — disclosed she had received a subpoena to appear before the grand jury. Six months later, a Martinez campaign spokesman confirmed that several of the councilwoman's aides had been called before the grand jury to answer questions about her re-election bid. And in recent months, Martinez's constituents — in interviews with The Times — have identified at least 19 people who went to the grand jury and were listed as giving Martinez contributions of $5 or $10.
Some of those people say they told investigators that they never gave those small donations, even though they were listed in city records as having done so. "When I go to the [grand] jury, I tell them I don't have extra money to support somebody else," said Ciro Catalan, a resident of Arleta.
Catalan said neither he nor three other relatives — a sister, a brother-in-law and a cousin — gave to Martinez's re-election bid. Yet all four are listed as $5 donors in paperwork submitted by Martinez to the city's Ethics Commission. He also said his wife did give $5.
Federal law enforcement agencies have the power to investigate fraud of more than $5,000 in cities that receive federal funds. In addition, the Los Angeles City Charter bars campaign donors from giving on behalf of another person without that person's knowledge and participation.
Nearly a fifth of the money raised by Martinez for her 2015 re-election campaign came from matching funds, according to Ethics Commission records. If FBI agents suspect that Martinez used fraudulent donor information to obtain taxpayer money, they would be more likely to pursue the people who were in charge — not junior political aides, said attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis, a former prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
"It is unlikely the FBI is targeting a low-level staffer," he added.
Last fall, a campaign spokesman said Martinez "understands from the U.S. attorney" that she is not a target.
Last year was the first election cycle in L.A. in which, under a newly approved ethics law, council candidates had to obtain contributions from at least 200 residents in their respective districts in order to receive taxpayer funds. Donations as small as $5 were allowed and, under the city's rules, any contribution up to $30 could be made in cash.
Panorama City resident Brian Bautista said he gave $5 to Martinez's campaign in response to a request from his brother's girlfriend, who works as an aide to the councilwoman. The aide, whom he declined to name, went to the family's home and collected four $5 contributions, he said.
"I think someone had a 20 and we just split it up," he said.
Bautista said that several months later, he and three family members were summoned to appear before the grand jury. During questioning, he said, prosecutors asked whether he had personally signed a donation form. The 27-year-old bus driver said he told the grand jury that the Martinez staffer filled out the form but that he had signed it himself.
Gary Villagonzalo, who also lives in Panorama City, said he and three other family members also went to the grand jury to answer questions about Martinez's donor list. Villagonzalo said his daughter, without his knowledge, had listed himself, his wife and another family member as $10 donors to the councilwoman's campaign.
Villagonzalo said his daughter, a college student, did so after being approached for donations by Martinez staffer Guillermo Marquez.
Marquez, who works in Martinez's Van Nuys office, hung up the phone when reached by The Times.
Martinez's district stretches from Lake Balboa to Sun Valley. First elected to the council in 2013, she has been outspoken about the need for a matching fund system, talking up its significance in L.A. in a video. In a six-minute spot produced by the campaign finance watchdog organization California Common Cause, she said those taxpayer funds provide candidates who aren't part of the political establishment "a shot at running for office and winning."
"You're going to need money to be able to communicate with voters," Martinez said in the video. "It's impossible to zigzag across your district. There's almost 300,000 people I represent in my district."
Kathay Feng, the top executive at California Common Cause, said it's possible that some of Martinez's donors denied that they gave small contributions out of an incorrect belief that donating might get them in trouble with federal authorities. Such behavior would not be unusual in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, such as the ones represented by Martinez, where residents are unfamiliar with campaign finance laws, Feng said.
It's also possible, Feng said, that either Martinez's staffers or her donors cut corners while gathering the small contributions that qualified her for matching funds.
"When I look at Nury's organization, I have a hard time believing her office would proactively try to game the system," she added. "It feels like there may have been inadvertent mistakes because of an inexperienced and relatively excited group" of contributors or entry-level staffers.
After The Times interviewed Feng, the Common Cause video was replaced with a shorter version that did not feature Martinez.