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Federal investigators focus on small campaign donations to L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez

Federal investigators looking into Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez's 2015 reelection bid have turned their attention to contributors who gave some of the smallest donations of her campaign.

Campaign-finance probes at City Hall have historically centered on large contributions, the kind that illegally exceed spending limits. But this time around, federal investigators have been focusing on donations listed in Martinez's contribution filings of just $5 and $10.

Those types of small donations were important to Martinez's campaign, helping her to qualify for a much larger pool of "matching funds" — taxpayer money provided to candidates who demonstrate grass-roots support.

Five constituents in Martinez's San Fernando Valley district, all of them listed in city records as small donors, said they were contacted by the FBI or other investigators over the last four months. Three of those five said they had also appeared before the federal grand jury.

Irene Salazar, who lives in Sun Valley, said law enforcement agents asked, in person and by phone, if she and three family members had donated to Martinez's campaign.

Records submitted by Martinez's campaign to the city Ethics Commission list Salazar, her husband, her son and her daughter as $5 donors. But Salazar says no one in her family provided contributions.

"None of us gave anything" to the Martinez campaign, said the 57-year-old janitor.

Adam Bass, a spokesman for Martinez, declined to comment. Roy Behr, a consultant on the councilwoman's reelection campaign, said in October that Martinez "understands from the U.S. attorney" that she is not a target of the probe.

"As far as she knows, that is still accurate," Behr said this week. He declined further comment.

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It is still unclear what the federal investigation is examining and who is being targeted. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. attorney's office would discuss the Martinez matter.

Small campaign donations did not play a significant role in City Council campaigns until last year's election. That was the first contest where, under newly approved ethics laws, candidates had to show they had collected contributions from at least 200 residents within their respective council districts to qualify for taxpayer matching funds.

Those rules specified that each district donor must give at least $5.

To qualify for those taxpayer funds, Martinez submitted a list of contributions from about 220 residents of her district, which takes in such neighborhoods as Van Nuys, Lake Balboa and Panorama City. More than three-fourths of those donations were for $10 or less, city campaign contribution records show.

Once candidates qualify for matching funds, they may obtain up to $2 from City Hall for every dollar they receive from a campaign donor who lives in Los Angeles. Martinez's campaign ultimately received $65,360 in public funds, which made up nearly a fifth of her campaign's spending, according to the Ethics Commission website.

Had Martinez failed to obtain valid donations from 200 district residents, she would not have been eligible for that taxpayer money.

Panorama City resident Gary Villagonzalo told The Times that FBI agents showed up at his door last fall to ask him about donations to Martinez's reelection bid. Villagonzalo said that during that visit, he was surprised to learn that he was listed in city records as a $10 campaign contributor.

Villagonzalo said he later discovered that, without his knowledge, his daughter had named him, his wife and his other daughter as donors to Martinez's campaign. "She just put our names there — 10 bucks, 10 bucks, 10 bucks," said Villagonzalo, who works as an in-home healthcare worker.

"We're really upset," he added.

Villagonzalo's daughter could not be reached. The Times left multiple messages with her father asking for her to comment.

After the FBI's visit, Villagonzalo said, he and three other family members were asked to appear before the federal grand jury. Villagonzalo said he is not sure if his daughter, who is a college student, had provided the $40 needed to cover the family's four $10 contributions.

The Los Angeles City Charter bars campaign donors from giving on behalf of another person without that person's knowledge and participation. Each violation can be treated as a misdemeanor and result in a $5,000 financial penalty.

Some who were contacted by investigators said they did indeed give to Martinez's campaign.

Arleta resident Arcelia Arias, who gave $5 to Martinez's reelection bid, said FBI agents came to her home last year to ask about her contribution. Arias declined to describe how she decided to give the money, saying she had wasted enough time answering questions before the grand jury.

"My money is my money, and I can do whatever I want with my money," she said.

Martinez was elected to the council in 2013 to fill the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, who is now in Congress. She played a role in the council's decision to raise the citywide minimum wage to $15 by 2020. She also is part of Council President Herb Wesson's leadership team.

During last year's election campaign, council candidates across the city scrambled to meet the new 200-donor threshold. Former state Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, who ran against Martinez, said the requirement was difficult to achieve in the working-class district, which is heavily Latino.

"It was a really hard, very time-consuming, process," Montañez said, "because [donors] have to live in the council district, and people in our council district are not used to giving money."

Behr, the campaign consultant, said last year that some Martinez staffers had been asked to appear before the grand jury. On Tuesday, he would not say whether the councilwoman had been called. But others in her district confirmed that they had been summoned.

Panorama City resident Joseph Cruz, a $5 donor to Martinez's campaign, told The Times that he, his wife and his father-in-law went before the grand jury last month. All three were listed as small contributors to Martinez.

Cruz said investigators asked him who had requested the donation to Martinez. He declined to tell The Times what his answer was.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzahniser

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 22, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Small contributions to L.A. official scrutinized - Federal investigators are looking into $5-$10 donations that helped Councilwoman Nury Martinez's campaign." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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