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Newport activist seeks state investigation of whether councilman works for mayor's business

Newport activist seeks state investigation of whether councilman works for mayor's business
Newport Beach activist Susan Skinner wants to know whether City Councilman Scott Peotter, left, works for Mayor Marshall "Duffy" Duffield, right. (File Photos)

A Newport Beach activist has asked the state to investigate the possibility that Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield quietly employs City Councilman Scott Peotter at his boat manufacturing company, potentially resulting in undeclared conflicts of interest.

In a complaint filed this week with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Susan Skinner zeroed in on the City Council’s recent approval of a bundle of contracts for on-call harbor maintenance services as a cause for concern.

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Duffield recused himself from the Aug. 14 item because he has a “source of income” conflict of interest at the harbor, presumably his boat company.

The rest of the council, with no discussion, voted 6-0 to award $350,000 in two new contracts and $60,000 in amendments to two existing contracts for maintenance and repair of public infrastructure such as mooring buoys, docks, piers and sewage pump-outs.

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Skinner said Duffield’s recusal was “legally deficient” because it was vague. In addition, she argued, if Duffield is a source of income for Peotter, Duffield’s conflicts are also Peotter’s conflicts.

“On behalf of the residents of Newport Beach, I would appreciate having the commission expedite its investigation of this complaint,” Skinner wrote. “Citizens of Newport Beach deserve to know the truth of this matter prior to the November election where both Mr. Peotter and Mr. Duffield are seeking reelection. In fairness, Mr. Duffield and Mr. Peotter deserve to have this matter resolved expeditiously.”

Duffield declined to comment Tuesday.

Peotter did not comment other than to affirm what he has said previously about the matter. “It’s still a rumor,” he said. “I won’t respond.”

On Aug. 19, Skinner started an email exchange with City Attorney Aaron Harp broaching the possibility that Peotter works for Duffy Electric Boat Co. After Harp asked her for details, she suggested he ask around the City Council.

“Based on the information I have been provided by you, it appears your concern is based upon a rumor,” Harp wrote in an Aug. 24 reply. “While I understand you would like answers from our office and the other governmental agencies responsible for looking into these types of issues, this is not possible given the ethical rules related to the performance of our duties.”

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who openly supports the candidates challenging Duffield and Peotter in this year’s council races, chimed in when he sent an Aug. 25 email newsletter to constituents, refining the allegations with “the question of whether or not Mayor Duffield has actually hired Councilman Peotter to help out with the relocation of the Duffy boat manufacturing facilities to the state of Utah.” The Duffy manufacturing plant is currently in Adelanto in San Bernardino County.

Duffield would not answer his City Council challenger, Tim Stoaks, when Stoaks asked him at an Aug. 29 council candidate forum whether he employs Peotter.

Skinner suggested to the FPPC that Harp was avoiding an investigation.

“The city attorney, who works at the pleasure of the City Council, has refused to investigate this matter, asserting that he has no evidence that Mr. Peotter works for Mr. Duffield,” she wrote. “The ethics and conflict of interest enforcement policy of his office appears to be ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

This is the third resident-initiated FPPC complaint against Duffield and Peotter in less than six months, and it uses some elements that are similar to its predecessors.

In June, Lauri Preedge alleged Duffield has participated in or used his official position to influence harbor-related decisions in violation of state and local laws by using Peotter as his surrogate when he recused himself from council votes and presentations.

In April, Martha Peyton alleged Peotter accepted noncash donations from Duffield and others that either pushed the donors over the contribution limit or were misreported, if they were reported at all, and that Harp didn’t do anything about it because his employment is dependent on council approval. She filed her complaint with the state simultaneously with a lawsuit against the city outlining the same complaints.

The Peyton case is an open investigation, but the FPPC enforcement division has not decided whether to pursue an investigation into the Preedge complaint, an agency spokesman said Tuesday.

Peyton dropped her lawsuit against Newport Beach in July after an Orange County Superior Court judge tentatively sided with the city.

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