Even though annual financial disclosures are critical to promoting open government and limiting potential conflicts of interest, hundreds of public officials and consultants neglected to file their required State Form 700 reports this year, county records show.
Experts say the disclosures, which thousands of public officials must file annually under the Political Reform Act, are an important way to keep voters informed.
Regulators also take issue with public officials who fail to report their assets, revenue and any gifts they receive, often imposing penalties that reach into the thousands of dollars.
When The Union-Tribune reported last month that Jesus Cardenas, chief of staff to Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, owns a political consulting firm that serves clients with interests before the city of San Diego, the information was largely based on public disclosures.
Two years ago, the newspaper reported on conflicts in financial statements filed by front-running San Diego City Council candidate Kelvin Barrios. The stories derailed his campaign, and Barrios dropped out of the race.
State Form 700 was also cited by the City Attorney’s Office during litigation over the city’s lease of the Ash Street office tower. Lawyers for the city said broker Jason Hughes should have submitted while advising three successive mayors on real estate deals — and collecting $9.4 million in fees.
This year, according to the clerk of the county Board of Supervisors, who is charged with tracking local compliance with the Form 700 filing rules, 224 elected and appointed officials countywide did not submit the annual Form 700s by the April 1 deadline.
“The clerk of the board took numerous steps to ensure filers filed timely,” clerk Andrew Potter informed supervisors in a memo this spring.
Reminder notices were sent to all non-compliant officials in February and twice in March, notifying them of the looming deadline and encouraging them to comply with state law, Potter said.
Subsequently, “these individuals are being referred to the district attorney and the FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) for noncompliance,” he wrote.
The hundreds of non-filers in San Diego County range from members of the grand jury and employees of the regional planning agency SANDAG to school districts and a tiny North County water authority.
Some county agencies also appear on the list, including the Local Agency Formation Commission, which regulates boundaries between public agencies, and the Leon L. Williams Human Relations Commission, which promotes mutual respect and integrity.
Michael Workman, the spokesperson for San Diego County, said it is the employers’ responsibility to maintain current and accurate lists of people who are required to submit a statement of economic interest. He said the county will work with agencies that seek guidance.
“All agencies that file with us have access to a management module where the lead coordinator for Form 700s can update the information for their agency’s filers,” Workman said by email. “In the fall of each year, we reach out to all agencies to ask that they update their filers’ information to ensure the notifications are sent to the filers appropriately.”
SANDAG — which led all local agencies in number of non-filers, with more than 80 experts and consultants on the list — said its obligation is to inform members of the filing requirement, but the county is responsible for determining their filing status.
“None of our board of directors or policy advisory committees are on the list,” spokesperson Stacy Garcia said by email. “For working group members, SANDAG follows up with staff liaisons to reach out to any listed members to ensure compliance.”
Garcia said the planning agency would follow up with — and possibly penalize — consultants who have yet to report their financial interest as required.
“SANDAG policy is to restrict non-filer consultants from working on or participation in any project or program under their contract(s),” she wrote. “SANDAG follows up with its consultants to ensure compliance with the filing requirements.”
The Southwestern Community College District, with 10 administrators and consultants who did not submit annual disclosures, said officials had sent the county their list of required filers in March but college officials acknowledged it was not correct.
“The district was able to add requisite employees but was unable to delete employees/ consultants who were no longer employed by the district as of calendar year 2022,” spokesperson Lilian Leopold said in a statement.
“Your list reflects those employees/consultants,” she added. “The county clerk must not have updated their list per our updates.”
Workman contradicted the Southwestern Community College District response.
“The county does not have any record of Southwestern College providing updates to their list of filers,” he wrote. “The individuals that Southwestern College indicated are no longer employed are still required to file leaving-office statements.”
An Oceanside Unified School District official also blamed San Diego County for the 11 names appearing on the clerk’s record.
“The list you provided is filled with errors and needs to be updated,” spokesperson Donald Bendz said in an email. “The only three people who are still with OUSD are Sherry Freeman de Leyva, Perry Alvarez (and) Raquel Alvarez. Their statements of economic interest forms have been turned in.”
The county confirmed that two filings were turned in after the Union-Tribune asked Oceanside schools officials about the non-filers.
“We received electronic filings from Perry Alvarez and Raquel Alvarez, who both filed their forms (Tuesday),” Workman said. “We still do not have a filing for Sherry Freeman de Leyva.”
According to her LinkedIn social media profile, Freeman de Leyva is retired from the Oceanside Unified School District.
Sean McMorris of California Common Cause, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting good government practices, said the Form 700 disclosures are critical in the system of checks and balances that makes up public administration.
The annual reports help prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency by requiring public officials to declare their salary ranges, property holdings, stocks and other investments and gifts from companies or organizations, he said.
“We want our public officials to conduct business based on the best interests of the public, not themselves,” McMorris said.