Up­scale ho­tel faces $310,000 fine

Hunt­ley hid cam­paign do­na­tions to fight a Santa Mon­ica ri­val’s ex­pan­sion, panel says.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Alene Tchekm­e­dyian alene.tchekm­e­dyian @la­times.com

An up­scale ho­tel in Santa Mon­ica has agreed to a $310,000 fine for laun­der­ing do­na­tions to City Coun­cil can­di­dates and com­mit­tees in hopes of thwart­ing the ex­pan­sion of a com­pet­ing ho­tel, records show.

The Hunt­ley Ho­tel con­cealed 62 cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions — to­tal­ing $97,350 — to anti-de­vel­op­ment com­mit­tees and po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates thought likely to op­pose the con­tentious ex­pan­sion of the Fair­mont Mi­ra­mar Ho­tel, ac­cord­ing to the Fair Po­lit­i­cal Prac­tices Com­mis­sion’s en­force­ment di­vi­sion.

State of­fi­cials be­lieve the pro­posed fine, which comes af­ter a two-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion, is the sec­ond-largest in the agency’s his­tory.

In 2012, the Fair­mont, a luxury ocean­front ho­tel that sits di­rectly in front of the Hunt­ley, was pur­su­ing a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion that in­volved build­ing pri­vate con­dos and three new build­ings, in­clud­ing a 21-story tower.

The Hunt­ley, along with res­i­dents and busi­nesses in the area, op­posed the ex­pan­sion, wor­ry­ing that it would snarl traf­fic and block sun­light and views.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion’s records, the Hunt­ley se­lected its as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager, Manju Ra­man, to fundraise and help or­ga­nize the com­mu­nity’s op­po­si­tion to the Fair­mont’s ex­pan­sion.

Ra­man said she had no ex­pe­ri­ence in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and was not per­son­ally fa­mil­iar with cam­paign fi­nance rules, FPPC records said. When she fell short of her as­signed goals, she of­fered to re­im­burse ho­tel em­ploy­ees and their spouses if they wrote checks to the can­di­dates.

That year, the ho­tel re­im­bursed 44 con­trib­u­tors who do­nated $86,650 to Santa Mon­i­cans for Re­spon­si­ble Growth and City Coun­cil can­di­dates.

The Po­lit­i­cal Re­form Act pro­hibits con­trib­u­tors from do­nat­ing to cam­paigns in the name of an­other per­son.

“Mak­ing a cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion in the name of an­other is one of the most se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions” of the Po­lit­i­cal Re­form Act, the FPPC said. “It de­ceives the pub­lic as to the true source of con­tri­bu­tions, and as oc­curred with cer­tain of the con­tri­bu­tions in this case, it al­lows for the cir­cum­ven­tion of lo­cal con­tri­bu­tion lim­its.”

The Hunt­ley’s do­na­tions went to two can­di­dates — Ted Win­terer and Richard McKin­non — who ran on slow-growth plat­forms, as well as two in­cum­bents Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, the com­mis­sion’s records show.

Win­terer, now the city’s mayor, was elected to the coun­cil in 2012, along with Davis and O’Day. McKin­non, un­suc­cess­ful in his bid for City Coun­cil, is serv­ing his sec­ond term on the city’s Plan­ning Com­mis­sion.

O’Day told The Times he was “re­ally pleased” with the state’s ac­tion and was un­aware that cer­tain do­na­tions to his cam­paign came from the ho­tel.

“This was wrong­do­ing by a group of fun­ders,” he said. “We, as elected of­fi­cials and as a city body, have long in­vested in trans­parency and clean cam­paigns in Santa Mon­ica with ac­count­abil­ity, and so this ac­tion, I hope, re­stores the sense of faith in govern­ment.”

O’Day said he’s “open to the [Fair­mont] ho­tel hav­ing a right to ren­o­vate the prop­erty” to re­main com­pet­i­tive.

The ho­tel, he said, has scaled back its ex­pan­sion pro­posal since it was first sub­mit­ted be­cause of com­mu­nity in­put.

Win­terer, Davis and McKin­non were not im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment.

Dur­ing the next elec­tion, the Hunt­ley again im­prop­erly re­im­bursed peo­ple for their cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions.

In a re­lated cam­paign fi­nance in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a law firm and an En­cino Pi­lates stu­dio face a $10,000 fine for fail­ing to dis­close orig­i­nal con­trib­u­tor in­for­ma­tion.

In 2012, the law firm, Richard­son Pa­tel, do­nated $10,000 to the anti-growth com­mit­tee in Santa Mon­ica in the name of Pure Pi­lates with­out dis­clos­ing that the true donor was the Hunt­ley, FPPC records show. Nei­ther the firm nor the stu­dio was im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment.

Sohrab Sas­sou­nian, pres­i­dent of the Hunt­ley, could not im­me­di­ately be reached for com­ment.

A woman who an­swered the phone at Sas­sou­nian’s home ques­tioned why The Times was in­ter­ested in pub­lish­ing a story on a mi­nor vi­o­la­tion, not­ing that he had al­ready paid the fine.

“He didn’t kill some­body,” the woman said.

The com­mis­sion will con­sider whether to ac­cept the fine at a meet­ing this month. The ho­tel, state of­fi­cials said, has al­ready writ­ten a check.

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