A Glendale City Council candidate was ordered to return more than $10,000 in campaign donations after reportedly receiving incorrect information about the appropriate fundraising period from the city clerk’s office.
By the afternoon of Aug. 6, City Council candidate Dan Brotman returned the online contributions he received and began cutting refund checks to donors, hours after he received an email from the Glendale city attorney’s office alerting him that the city’s code prohibited him from accepting campaign donations before Sept. 1.
Brotman, a first-time candidate, said the email surprised him because the Glendale city clerk’s office had assured him it was acceptable to raise funds when he reached out to discuss the matter in late July.
Brotman and his campaign treasurer also reviewed the city’s campaign finance rules before fundraising and thought they were in compliance, Brotman said, adding that he does not think the code is clear.
“It shocked me because I thought I was fine,” Brotman said.
“It didn’t give me any advantage. In fact, it put me at a disadvantage because I had to go through the process of returning all the money, which wasted a huge amount of my time,” he added.
Brotman is one of eight candidates vying for three City Council seats up for grabs in an election set for March 3. Two additional candidates are pending qualification.
Glendale City Atty. Mike Garcia said he independently confirmed Brotman’s claim that the city clerk’s office had provided him with incorrect information.
“[In light of the circumstances], I am exercising my discretion not to engage in further enforcement activity related to those contributions and will consider the matter closed upon refunding of the contributions,” Garcia said in an email to Brotman’s campaign manager Tom Pike on Aug. 7.
Glendale’s campaign finance rules state that candidates can only begin raising money six months before an election, Garcia said.
Garcia would not disclose who confirmed Brotman’s statements, citing attorney-client privilege.
In an email to Garcia on Aug. 6, Brotman said he spoke to City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian shortly after being alerted he had possibly violated the city’s campaign finance rules. In the same email, Brotman said he was aware that Garcia had been speaking with Kassakhian.
Kassakhian, who is also a City Council candidate, said he doesn’t recall if he or someone else on his staff spoke to Garcia at the time.
Kassakhian left for a family trip to Armenia on July 17 and returned to the office on Aug. 5 and said he was still catching up on city business in the period immediately after returning from the trip.
“I have to rely on what my staff says and take them at their word. I also have to take the candidate at their word, and find a way to bring them into compliance,” Kassakhian said.
The issue of intent matters in these situations, Kassakhian said. It was a point echoed by Garcia, as well as a spokesman for the California Fair Political Practices Commissions, or FPCC.
“It could have been an honest misunderstanding,” Kassakhian said.
On Aug. 28, Kassakhian also received an email from Garcia, advising him to take down a website that appeared to be soliciting campaign donations.
According to Kassakhian, the site was not live and was not set up to receive donations, but he took it down to avoid further misunderstanding.
Last year, Glendale voters approved a local ballot measure to consolidate the city‘s elections — which had previously been held in April of odd-numbered years — with the state primary. As a result, some of the city code’s language regarding elections became incongruous with the new election deadlines, Kassakhian said.
In January, Glendale City Council members changed the campaign fundraising period to align with the new elections that will be co-run by Los Angeles County.
However, city officials did not change the filing deadlines for City Council candidates, which led to confusion in recent weeks.
On Dec. 10, Glendale City Council members adopted an emergency ordinance to change the filing deadline and rectify what the clerk’s office has called an oversight missed by multiple offices.
UC Irvine law school professor Richard Hasen, who specializes in election law and campaign-finance regulations, said governments do mix-up dates and make other clerical errors from time to time.
“I think the unfortunate reality is that, across government offices, mistakes are made and wrong information is given out,” Hasen said. “Then they correct the mistakes, and it doesn’t lead to liability.”
He added, “That being said, if a candidate relied on information provided by a government official, that’s a pretty reasonable thing to do.”
Shortly after Brotman announced his candidacy on July 10 during an environmental rally he helped organize, he said he went about finding out what steps he had to take to launch his campaign and begin raising funds.
Conversations with someone in the city clerk’s office led him to believe that once he filed the necessary forms with the California Secretary of State’s office and set up a campaign bank account, he would be able to begin soliciting and collecting donations.
According to Brotman, he can’t recall who he spoke with at the time and said he may have made an assumption about the fundraising timeline.
While on his trip in Armenia, Kassakhian said he received an email from Brotman’s campaign that appeared to solicit donations. This raised red flags for him, and he asked his campaign consultant Dveen Babaian, who was in the United States, to speak with Brotman about it.
Brotman said Babaian called him and advised him to look into whether it was OK to raise funds.
After the conversation, Brotman said he called the city clerk’s office to ask whether he was in compliance with the city’s campaign finance rules.
According to Brotman, Aram Adjemian, an analyst with the city, said he was in compliance with the rules and could continue to seek donations.
Adjemian said he does not recall that specific conversation with Brotman, adding that he has spoken to the candidate many times.
“I would refer any candidate who calls me to the [relevant] section code, Adjemian said. “It’s their responsibility to look that up.”
Garcia suggested a similar takeaway in an email to Brotman.
“Ultimately … each candidate is responsible for familiarizing himself or herself with the campaign finance rules applicable to the election,” Garcia wrote on Aug. 6, apologizing for any potential miscommunication.
He acknowledged staff members sometimes make mistakes, but “no one on staff has the authority to waive a provision of the municipal code,” Garcia said in a follow-up phone interview.
Kassakhian said he and Brotman did discuss the alleged conversation with Adjemian.
According to Kasskhian, he asked Brotman why he relied on information from Adjemian, who is a records manager, not an elections expert.
“It’s like asking the valet what the specials are tonight and saying, ‘Why doesn’t he know what the specials are?’” Kassakhian said.
Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian has criticized the clerk’s office for its handling of the election so far. Last week, he took Kassakhian to task for failing to catch and change the City Council candidate filing dates to match the new election cycle.
“The information that comes out of the clerk’s office should be accurate, period,” Najarian said.
“Anyone who gives information out of the clerk’s office needs to make sure they’re speaking knowledgeably, not just guessing or making attempts at interpreting the statute,” he added.
According to Brotman, the changes approved in January by the City Council to the fundraising timeline are not reflected clearly in the code.
Kassakhian agreed the code’s campaign finance rules could use some cleaning up in several areas.
“It should be put out in a way for everyone to understand, not just attorneys,” Kassakhian said.
It’s the city’s policy to point people to the section code for clarification, but in this case “it may have caused confusion,” he added.
The city routinely reviews its election rules to see if they can be improved, Garcia said. He added that Brotman is currently the only person to have misinterpreted the code‘s rules concerning the fundraising period.
Once Sept. 1 rolled around, Brotman said he went back to the people whose donations he had refunded and began collecting the money again.
He said he got virtually all of it back, but it took time and effort.
“When we win, we will reform this system so everyone has an even playing field,” Brotman’s campaign manager, Tom Pike, said in a statement.