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Publicist Is Fined for Illegal Donations in Perris Campaign

State political watchdog orders Colin Flaherty to pay $76,000 for funneling funds to three candidates through friends and associates.

September 12, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A San Diego publicist laundered thousands of dollars' worth of campaign contributions to candidates for the Perris City Council and mayor's office while representing a major Southern California developer that wanted to build large housing projects in Perris, state authorities said.

Colin Flaherty also failed to report sizable contributions he made to then-Gov. Pete Wilson and then-state Sen. Curt Pringle, including nearly $4,000 worth of balloons, birthday cake and other party favors for Wilson in 1998.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission ruled Sept. 3 that Flaherty violated state campaign finance laws 38 times, and fined the public relations consultant $76,000. Flaherty did not return calls seeking comment.

"It's a significant fine. Money-laundering is considered by the commission to be the most serious violation" of political finance laws, because it denies the public the ability to know who is really supporting a campaign, said commission spokeswoman Sigrid Bathen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Perris mayor -- An article in the California section on Sept. 12 about campaign donation irregularities incorrectly stated that Al Landers was a former mayor of Hemet. He is a former mayor of Perris.

In the finding, commission investigators said that from July 1997 to September 1998, Flaherty persuaded his housecleaner, a high school basketball coach, the executive director of the Commission of the Californias, friends and others to write checks or give cash to candidates in Perris and elsewhere. He then reimbursed them with checks from his own bank account.

"The majority of the laundered contributions were made to secretly finance a slate of candidates in the city of Perris that he perceived as favorable to a project of his client, Barratt American Homes," the FPPC finding states.

Those candidates were real estate executive Al Landers, who was elected mayor, and Raul Mark Yarbrough and Cecilia Larios, who were elected to the council.

Landers and Yarbrough are still in office. Larios was defeated in the last election. Neither Landers nor Larios could be reached for comment.

Yarbrough, an auto shop and towing business owner, said he had "absolutely no knowledge" that his contributions from various individuals had been illicitly funneled to him by Flaherty. He recalled meeting with the lobbyist on behalf of Barratt American, based in Carlsbad, back then, but said that many developers had consultants.

Yarbrough said he gladly supported Barratt American on 1,200 homes, building fee credits and other items because the city was emerging from a $3-million bankruptcy and "we wanted to refire this economic engine."

Under his political predecessors, he said, the city had developed a "terrible, terrible reputation with the building industry," and that Barratt American was "not the largest, but they were the first to take their project and move forward" when he and his colleagues were elected.

That helped persuade others to flood the now fast-growing city with proposals and rebuild its coffers, he said.

"They set the pace, and everybody else jumped in."

A Barratt American staffer said the president was the only one who could comment, but he was unavailable Thursday. Bathen of the FPPC declined to comment when asked whether the developer's role had been investigated.

In an earlier action, the commission fined Landers $15,000 for 10 counts of violating state laws as the former mayor of Hemet, including trying to use his influence in governmental decisions in which he had financial interests in 1997 and 1999.

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