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Campaign donors, staffers for L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez were summoned to L.A. County grand jury

Campaign donors, staffers for L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez were summoned to L.A. County grand jury
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez in 2016. A grand jury summoned current and former members of her staff to testify earlier this year. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Three years ago, federal prosecutors issued subpoenas to several of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s aides, instructing them to appear before a federal grand jury to discuss her 2015 re-election campaign.

Within weeks, FBI agents also went to the homes of people listed in city records as donors to Martinez’s campaign to ask them if they were indeed contributors. Four of them later told The Times they did not make those donations.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office never announced charges and since then has declined to say whether the probe is over. But earlier this summer, several people with ties to Martinez or her campaign were summoned to a different grand jury, this one representing Los Angeles County.

At least two people who worked for the councilwoman in 2015 — one a current employee, the other a former staffer — were called to the grand jury in June. At least three others, each of them identified in city reports as Martinez’s donors, were summoned that same month.

A spokesman for L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, responding to a Times inquiry, confirmed that prosecutors are looking at Martinez. He declined to say what his office is examining.

“Our office has received complaints regarding Nury Martinez and they are under review,” said Lacey spokesman Greg Risling. “We cannot comment further.”

Martinez told The Times she has not heard from either the D.A. or the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I have no idea who they’re talking to,” Martinez said in an interview. “No one’s ever made me aware of anything. I’ve been sort of kept in the dark.”

The three donors who were summoned to the county grand jury in June were listed in Ethics Commission documents as having given $5 to Martinez’s 2015 re-election campaign. Those contributions, while extraordinarily small, would have been especially valuable, since they came from residents in Martinez’s district and could help the councilwoman qualify for taxpayer “matching funds” for her reelection bid.

Such donations were examined by the federal grand jury in 2015 and 2016. Two years ago, federal investigators asked residents in Martinez's district if their contributions, which helped Martinez obtain $65,360 in matching funds, were fraudulent, according to several people interviewed by The Times who either made donations or were listed in city records as having given.

Matching funds are designed to boost the campaigns of candidates deemed as having grassroots support. Council candidates are eligible for matching funds once they have received 200 donations of $5 or more from residents inside their districts, according to Ethics Commission rules.

At the time, federal investigators were also trying to determine whether public employees had engaged in election-related activities on government time, according to one source familiar with the probe, who asked to remain anonymous because they lacked authorization to discuss it.

The D.A.’s spokesman would not say whether county prosecutors are also looking at that topic.

Martinez represents such neighborhoods as Van Nuys, Sun Valley, Arleta, Lake Balboa and Panorama City. During the 2015 campaign, taxpayer matching funds made up nearly a fifth of the money taken in by her re-election bid.

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A year after she won re-election, a handful of people who live in Martinez’s district told The Times they did not give to the councilwoman, even though Ethics Commission records identified them as having done so. One of them was Bryant Mota, who was named in city records as a $5 contributor who lived in Martinez’s district.

Mota was summoned to the grand jury office in late June. He declined to discuss his appearance when approached by The Times.

Arleta resident Jaime Robles, also listed as a $5 Martinez contributor, was summoned to the grand jury office earlier this summer. Asked later if the panel was looking into Martinez’s donations, he declined to discuss the matter.

“They didn’t tell us what they were after,” he said.

Being called to testify before a grand jury is not an indication that someone has done something wrong. In Los Angeles County, prosecutors can use a grand jury to obtain information, such as testimony, without seeking an indictment from the panel.

The Times reported in 2016 that some of the people who collected Martinez’s $5 and $10 donations were the councilwoman’s staffers. In one instance, 18 relatives of a low-level Martinez staffer provided contributions ranging from $5 to $10.

In recent weeks, some civic groups have been pushing for changes to the matching fund system, arguing that the number of donations needed to qualify for taxpayer funds should be reduced from 200 to 100. Among those groups is California Common Cause, a campaign finance watchdog.

Martinez has previously appeared in a Common Cause video promoting the city’s matching fund program. After The Times reported on the federal probe into the councilwoman’s contributions, the group replaced its video with a shorter version that did not feature Martinez.

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