The Huntley Hotel, one of the major players in anti-development politics in Santa Monica over the last six years, will have to pay more than $300,000 in fines after the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) found the luxury hotel had made nearly $100,000 in laundered campaign contributions.
The Huntley made more than 60 contributions “in the names of others instead of its own legal name” to individual candidates as well as political action committees (PACs), including the anti-development Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and the powerful Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, between 2012 and 2015, according to the FPPC’s website.
The Huntley Hotel, which came on to the Santa Monica political scene in 2011 after its neighbor, the Miramar Hotel, proposed a major redevelopment to its property, has consistently supported anti-development groups, including Residocracy, the anti-development group that placed Measure LV on the ballot in 2016. The Huntley also helped fund Residocracy’s successful bid in 2014 to overturn City Council approval of the Bergamot Transit Village Project, though did so in its own name.
“Making a campaign contribution in the name of another is one of the most serious violations of the [Political Reform] Act. 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,” according to the FPPC’s report [PDF].
Santa Monica limits the amount of money that any one person can donate to a candidate to $325, though donations to PACs have no limits. According to the FPPC, during the 2012 election cycle, the Huntley made donations through other parties to four City Council candidates, though the hotel and its representatives clearly favored two of those candidates, whom they regarded as likely to oppose the Miramar project.
“[S]ome time in the late Summer or Fall of 2012, the Huntley’s attorneys suggested to [Huntley Assistant General Manager Manju] Raman that the hotel should try to raise approximately $10,000 to support two City Council candidates, Richard McKinnon and Ted Winterer, who were running on a slow-growth platform. The attorneys also suggested raising a lesser amount, $5,000, for each of the two incumbent councilmembers who were running for re-election, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis,” according to the FPPC report [PDF].
According to the FPPC’s website, in 2014 the Huntley also made contributions “in the names of others instead of its own legal name” to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, and McKinnon for City Council 2014.
In 2014, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights ran a campaign to elect City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich and to reelect Councilmember Kevin McKeown. SMRR also supported Planning Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy for Council, though her bid failed.
Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City that year backed Himmelrich and McKeown as well as McKinnon’s failed bid. McKinnon was on the Planning Commission at the time and remains a sitting Planning Commissioner.
The FPPC’s website also notes that “In 2012, [law firm] Richardson Patel acted as an agent for The Huntley Hotel by making a $10,000 contribution to Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth in the name of Pure Pilates without disclosing the identity of the true donor.”
According to the FPPC’s report, Raman approached Nimish Patel, a partner at the law firm which was serving as The Huntley’s business counsel and then a current member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education, “to ask that the law firm make a $10,000 campaign contribution to a political committee, Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (‘SMRG’), with the understanding that The Huntley would give it the money to make the contribution.”
The report reads, “On October 12, 2012, the law firm invoiced The Huntley $20,000, of which $10,000 represented a retainer for the month of October and $10,000 for the reimbursement of the contribution.”
SMRG had been organized by the Huntley’s political consultant, Sue Burnside, which, the FPPC reports, was hired on the advice of the Huntley’s law firm, Latham & Watkins.
“According to Raman, Burnside and the attorneys suggested that it would be best if the funding could come from a broader segment of the community, not just from The Huntley, so that it reflected the broader community’s opposition to Miramar’s development proposal. Raman contends she did not know whom she could turn to outside of The Huntley in order to raise that amount of money, and she was not comfortable asking others for large sums of money. Instead, Raman’s immediate reaction was to think of who, among those who opposed the Miramar’s expansion project, might be willing to put their name on a check and be reimbursed for their contribution by The Huntley,” according to the FPPC’s report.
In 2012, SMRG was a newcomer on the political scene and raised eyebrows when the group sent out a questionnaire to all candidates. Most of the candidates banded together and demanded transparency from the group, which initially refused to disclose its backers.
In 2013, campaign finance disclosure forms revealed that the Huntley Hotel was a major backer of SMRG, though the extent to which the hotel had actually funded the anti-development group remained obscured until the FPPC finished its investigation.