The agency that oversees California's campaign-finance laws has launched an investigation into the campaign of Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Tanaka, who reported an influx of cash from developers after winning the election last November and who accepted and later returned $5,000 from a property owner whose project he was set to review.
That investigation was prompted by two anonymous complaints against Tanaka, said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees compliance of the Political Reform Act. One of these complaints was rejected while the other prompted the probe into potential inaccuracies in Tanaka's campaign reporting.
As the Weekly first reported in February, Tanaka had received $47,895 in late contributions (those that were reported after the November election), which totaled more than half of the total his campaign had raised. Most of the late cash came from developers and property managers, a few of whom gave the campaign $5,000 checks.
Tanaka is one of three council members who benefitted from the late surge of developer cash. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Adrian Fine also reported contributions from the builder community after their election. Both Kniss and Fine had also been subjects of anonymous complaints, according to the FPPC, though the agency had not indicated whether these complaints had triggered investigations.
Tanaka had previously told the Weekly that he was not involved with his campaign's fundraising and that his campaign had not done anything improper. He could not be reached for comment today.
But the Feb. 27 letter from the FPPC to Tanaka cites three potential violations that are being looked at. It notes that Tanaka was the "recipient of an approximately 13-foot campaign sign mounted atop the building of the architect for 429 University Ave.," which the council was set to review in February (and which it ultimately approved). The building is being developed by the family of Elizabeth Wong, whose son Andrew Wong contributed $5,000 to Tanaka.
The other two violations are more general in nature. One notes that Tanaka's filings leave blank the occupations of several developers, including Chop Keenan, Jim Baer, Chasen Rapp, Mart Gates Jr., Joseph Martinetti, Jr., and Perry Palmer.
"These inaccurate filings allowed Mr. Tanaka to conceal the amount of donations he received from real estate developers and mislead the voting public," the complaint alleges, according to the letter from the FPPC.
In addition, the FPPC cites a personal loan that Tanaka had made to his campaign, which was later paid back from late donations, according to the FPPC letter.
"The reporting of this transaction hid the source of his campaign financing from the voters," the letter states. "Because these late donations reimbursed the candidate's personal loan to his campaign, should these donations instead be classified as gifts and have triggered a recusal on the Wong property vote."
The concerns in the complaint hew closely to those made by Michael Harbour, a downtown property owner who appealed the council's prior approval of 429 University Ave., and various members of the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning. Before the Feb. 6 discussion of 429 University, several speakers called for Tanaka to recuse himself. The fact that Tanaka said he had returned the $5,000 to Andrew Wong -- citing the "proximity of time" between the donation and the review -- did not assuage these concerns.
"I encourage you to recuse yourself, even though you refunded it," downtown resident Andrew Gottlieb told Tanaka during the "public comments" portion of the meeting. "It creates a cloud and appearance of impropriety which undermines the public's confidence in the process, if you don't recuse yourself."
But after publicly confirming with City Attorney Molly Stump that he is not legally required to recuse himself from the discussion, Tanaka decided to participate. Later in the meeting, he was one of five council members to vote in favor of the revised project, which passed by a 5-3 vote.
The letter from the FPPC notes that at this time, it has "not made any determinations."
"We are simply providing you with this information and will be contacting you again to regarding this matter," the letter states.