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State political watchdog rejects complaint asserting councilmen have a conflict of interest

State political watchdog rejects complaint asserting councilmen have a conflict of interest
The California Fair Political Practices Commission will not pursue enforcement action against Newport Beach City Councilman Scott Peotter, left, and Mayor Marshall "Duffy" Duffield over an alleged conflict of interest resulting from Peotter working for Duffy. (File Photos)

The California Fair Political Practices Commission rejected a complaint Wednesday that alleged conflicts of interest between Newport Beach Mayor Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and his City Council colleague Scott Peotter.

Local activist Susan Skinner filed the complaint in September seeking an investigation into the possibility of a Duffield-Peotter employment arrangement — a partnership that has since been confirmed after state and local documents from the city of Adelanto showed that Duffield had tapped Peotter, who works as an architectural and development consultant, to do the legwork on parceling property Duffield owns in the San Bernardino County city. The property is the site of the factory for his eponymous Duffy Electric Boat Co.

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Skinner amended her complaint twice this month, most recently on Monday, after the Daily Pilot published a story on Peotter working with Duffield to split the Adelanto land into parcels.

However, the FPPC declined on Wednesday to take the matter further.

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“Based on a review of the complaints and documentation provided, the Enforcement Division found insufficient evidence of a conflict of interest violation of the Political Reform Act (the “Act”) by either individual, and will not pursue an enforcement action in this matter,” FPPC Enforcement Division Chief Galena West wrote in a letter to Duffield and Peotter’s lawyers.

In its letter, the FPPC referenced Skinner’s original complaint and her first amendment — but not this week’s update — which she said is “the most powerful one.”

Skinner said that she replied to the agency pointing out that her last amendment contained harder evidence.

“I’m expecting a different result from that complaint,” she said.

Newport Beach political consultant Dave Ellis, who represents Duffield and Peotter in their reelection campaigns, released a joint statement on their behalf.

“Today’s rejection by the Fair Political Practices Commission of Susan Skinner’s multiple complaints against us underscores how one misguided person can misuse the process,” the statement said. “The work done in Adelanto — 100 miles from Newport Beach — to prepare the Duffy Electric Boat property for sale has no relationship to any votes cast by us in Newport Beach. It never did and never will.”

Duffield said this week that he split his 4.7-acre property in Adelanto into thirds and sought a cannabis distribution permit from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control to take advantage of increased property values that followed Adelanto’s passage of a medicinal cultivation ordinance in 2015 and creation of a “cultivation zone” in 2016 that later expanded to include the factory site.

He said he doesn’t want to grow or distribute marijuana himself but wants to make the property more attractive to buyers so he can move his boat factory to Utah.

Skinner argued in her complaint that if Duffield is a source of income for Peotter, Duffield’s conflicts of interest are also Peotter’s.

Duffield regularly recuses himself from City Council votes on Newport Harbor matters because of potential business conflicts related to Duffy Electric Boat Co., which has a harborfront office on West Coast Highway. Peotter does not recuse himself from those votes.

In a related matter, Newport Beach attorney Phil Greer sent the city a “cure or correct” letter Wednesday, a few hours before the FPPC rendered its decision, asking City Attorney Aaron Harp to void a bundle of contracts for on-call harbor maintenance services the City Council approved in August — with Duffield recusing but Peotter voting — and to return money the city paid a lobbyist this year for a since-abandoned effort to have the state legally declare Newport Harbor a port. These were two issues that Skinner highlighted in her FPPC complaint.

Greer said the FPPC’s decision not to pursue the complaint did not impact his request.

Harp declined to comment.

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