As controversy continues to swirl around its future, San Diego's ethics commission has handed one of the city's longtime law and lobbying shops a $1000 fine for failing to fully disclose its political giving.
The accused miscreant is Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, the well-moneyed downtown law firm that has handled the affairs of a virtual galaxy of the local rich and famous — including the big-money domestic split of Elizabeth "Betsy" Manchester from former U-T publisher Douglas Manchester.
An August 13 stipulation between Seltzer and the ethics commission says that an October 29, 2014, disclosure report by the firm failed to include a $600 contribution made to an unidentified city candidate.
The filing was amended on April 27 of this year after a notice to comply was given by the commission staff, showing that the donation was made by Seltzer partner James Dawe to mayor Kevin Faulconer’s campaign fund.
Dawe has faced controversy before in the form of a 2008 city audit regarding a library funding foundation he was involved with.
Dawe has also been a major player for downtown special interests, and his firm lobbied for the failed Balboa Park road and parking makeover plan championed by Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs.
For his part, Faulconer is in the midst of choosing new ethics commissioners, and his Republican funding base is pressing hard for lawyer Robert Ottilie, a longtime practitioner before the commission.
Ottilie is opposed by the commission’s executive director Stacey Fulhorst, who last month asserted to the Union-Tribune that, “He has no regard for any type of rules, and it would be so difficult to have any type of civil discourse with Mr. Ottilie’s involvement, that at least probably two commissioners would resign, as would most of the commission staff, me included."
Ottilie backers say the criticism is unfair, and point out that he was nominated by two Democrats, Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole, along with Republican Scott Sherman.
“Robert Ottilie is an aggressive defender of his clients, and may overstep ‘polite’ standards,” wrote retired banker and ex-mayoral candidate Peter Q. Davis in a July letter to the Union-Tribune.
“But it is exactly this independence that justice demands.”
Fulhorst supporters note Ottilie's role in defending Emerald before the commission, and Cole's off-season fundraising for her legal defense fund from Mission Valley Republicans.
Campaign cash relationships between lobbyists and the mayor and city-council members, who all have a say in picking ethics commissioners, have raised additional questions about the integrity of the outcome.
Last month’s Seltzer filing shows the firm generated major cash for its chosen city-council candidate. La Jolla’s Barbara Bry got $7775 at a June 18 cocktail party thrown by Robert Caplan and David Dorne. On June 28, Dorne held another cocktail event for Bry, raising $4925.
According to the July 30 document, current clients include Campland by the Bay, which hired the firm to "monitor City actions relating to continued operation of Campland in Mission Bay Park" and to obtain "extension of lease or interim lease."
That account, handled by Dawe, grossed $1000 during the third quarter, the report says.
In addition, housing builders Pardee and R&V Management each paid $1000. The ethics stipulation says the law firm did not previously disclose enough information about its work for Pardee.
The current settlement isn't the first time Seltzer Caplan has run into disclosure trouble, the stipulation notes.
The firm "was the subject of two previous Commission enforcement actions involving the failure to disclose all of the campaign contributions made by its owners, officers, and lobbyists, and paid a $500 fine in each of these cases."
Additionally, in 2007, firm lawyer Cynthia Morgan was fined $5000 for failing to register regarding her lobbying work on behalf of Pacific Beach neighbors opposed to a detox site.
A nearby shopping-mall owner who funded the effort was not disclosed, according to a Union-Tribune report.
UPDATE 8/20, 7:35 p.m.:
Faulconer's announced new commission appointments, subject to council approval, are Bill Baber, Sid Voorakara, and David Potter. Ottilie was not named.