Donors consistently giving to Indio City Council candidates are among the same names that have built the city: the company that remodeled council chambers in 2015, the business that provides the city’s waste and recycling services and the auto dealership that supplies a portion of the city’s police fleet are all familiar names on campaign filings spanning the past five years.
Political contributions to council candidates from city contractors in that time amounted to more than $36,000 — or about 11 percent of total donations, an analysis of campaign-finance forms by The Desert Sun found.
Most contributions overall came from individuals — some prominent, some heads of those city contractors and some regular locals, the analysis found. Some donors gave as little as $20 in a one-time donation. Others gave thousands — or even tens of thousands — of dollars over the course of five years. The median donation was about $250.
The 2018 election season officially closed on Friday following the certification of results by county officials, including the election of newcomer Waymond Fermon over incumbent Mike Wilson to the council.
During election season, The Desert Sun made public-records requests, compiled the papers and built a database of donations to candidates for City Council. It covers 574 donations between 2014 and 2018, a period during which donors gave nine candidates for city office a total of $315,000, according to the campaign finance records provided by the city.
More: Certified results show Waymond Fermon defeats Indio Mayor Mike Wilson. Will Wilson request a recount?
The list of donors includes real estate developers, philanthropists, political action committees and plenty of individuals.
The amount of money candidates raised is wide-ranging. Glenn Miller raised the most over the five years period with a total of $113,765. Mike Wilson was the second top fundraiser with $58,570 raised.
In just 2018, Wilson raised $26,490 but was defeated by Fermon’s $7,210 pot of funds. However, Fermon has a California Fair Political Practices Commission investigation open against him regarding his campaign finance disclosures. FPPC officials won’t provide further detail until the investigation is complete.
Follow the money
Indio’s political-contribution filings have not been regularly reviewed in the past. In fact, most of the forms weren’t in electronic form or even organized in one place. Due to limited space in city hall, the forms were spread between the city clerk’s office, the clerk administrator’s office, the city manager’s office and in the basement, according to Sabdi Sanchez, Indio City Clerk administrator. Sanchez said she doesn’t believe there are any forms missing, though the documents were not organized in any particular order.
Individuals contributed most of the donations, giving $150,000 — almost half of the total amount examined by The Desert Sun. Among the largest donors were prominent local campaign contributors, like philanthropist Harold Matzner, who gave $10,500 during the period, and renewable energy developer Fred Noble, who gave $4,500.
Other major donations came from a group of 30 political action committees, or PACs, which together accounted for $64,350.
The data also show that contractors hired by the city are among the frequent donors to candidates for Indio City Council. Combined, contractors and individuals that work for contractors donated at least $36,692 to City Council candidates in the past five years — about 11 percent of total donations during that period. Contractors include Burrtec Waste Industries, Fiesta Ford, Landmark Golf, Holt Architects, Granite Construction Company and Albert Webb, an independent contractor.
The data is current through June, when the last campaign finance forms were filed prior to the November election.
California has no rules disallowing City Council candidates from accepting donations from individuals or companies the city contracts with. Nor are donations forbidden from large developers in the city. There also are no rules requiring council members to recuse themselves from voting on items related to those donors.
Cities have the power to set their own rules, but most haven’t, including Indio. This leaves the ethical decision of accepting donations or abstaining from a vote up to the individual City Council member.
When asked in October, Wilson, mayor at the time, said his campaign contributions have never been a deciding factor in his decision-making process. He said his votes have always been based on what is best for Indio. Wilson said he rarely recused himself from a vote over his 21 years on the council because he has no conflicts of interest.
“As to your questions regarding particular donors, I actually find it rather offensive,” Wilson said. “My vote has never been for sale and my donors know that.”
Following Wilson’s initial response, both Wilson and Councilwoman Elaine Holmes provided The Desert Sun with identical comments in response to questions about specific city contracts that they declined to answer:
“I am very careful to comply with the (California Fair Political Practices Commission)’s rules regarding conflicts of interest, and I am transparent in disclosing my campaign contributions. The Political Reform Act specifically states that campaign contributions are not considered income or a gift to the recipient, do not create conflicts of interest, and elected officials are not required to abstain from decisions that involve their contributors. I follow the law, I disclose contributions I receive as the law requires, and I will abstain when required. Because the law specifically says contributions do not create conflicts interest, it would not require me to abstain in any of the instances you asked about.”
Lupe Ramos Watson said she has and will continue to follow the law of disclosure when she receives contributions from any developer.
In California, receiving donations from city contractors and local real estate developers is common and even necessary, some experts argue.
“If you start cutting off these contributions from businesses, suddenly contributions would go to $0,” said Larry Lubka, a California attorney who specializes in public contracts at Lubka and White LLP. “It is just very hard in this day and age to get enough small contributions to add up to anything. It really is as simple as that. It’s expensive to run for office…if you start making rules like this, you’re cutting yourself at the knees.”
Lubka said if council members really want to be “ethically pristine,” then they should recuse themselves from any decision that could appear to have a conflict of interest, but even that, he argues, could be bothersome and unnecessary.
“I would love to see more conflict-of-interest rules,” Lubka said. “But would you just recuse yourself for contractors? Or subcontractors? Or sub-subcontractors? How far do you go? What you would need to enforce those rules would be expensive and burdensome.”
Another challenge is balancing the desire to award contracts to local companies. Lubka said in a city the size of Indio, he suspects there are far fewer companies to choose from than in a city the size of Los Angeles.
And Indio City Manager Mark Scott said he hopes that most city contracts are from local companies. The city even provides a local preference to vehicle bids. Most of the city’s law enforcement vehicles are from Fiesta Ford in Indio, which the city gives preference to per their local preference policy. Fiesta Ford has also been one of the top 10 campaign donors to Indio City Council candidates, The Desert Sun analysis found.
The full impact of some of the most significant donors in the city only emerged by combining donations made individually, by a single person, as well as the donations made by companies where they work and political action committees they support.
Here is a look at some of the connections among top donors in Indio. The names of individual donors, as they appear in the spreadsheet, are in bold.
The super PAC is backed by local businessman Nachhattar Chandi of Chandi Group USA, who used the entity in 2016 to donate $40,000 to Glenn Miller and Joan Dzuro.
It was founded by Chandi and Alexander Haagen III, another prominent Indio donor, in 2016.
When the PAC was formed, Chandi put more than $500,000 intended to create favorable ads for Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. In August 2016, Chandi was picketed by a group of anti-Trump protesters in front of an am/pm gas station in Mecca.
Chandi and related contributors
Chandiis chief executive of Chandi Group USA, which owns gas stations and restaurants in California, including Arco am/pm stores.
Campaign contribution data show Chandi and his companies have been regular donors to Indio candidates. Individually, Chandi donated $9,500 to Indio candidates in the past five years, making him the fifth-largest donor in the city overall. Chandi Group donated an additional $1,000 to Wilson.
More: Chandi donated $41K to Indio City Council candidates
Additionally, candidates reported in campaign finance forms that they had received donations from three other entities that appear to be connected to Chandi. Chandi is chief executive of the first company, North Indio Jackson Petroleum Inc., as well as a second, KSC & Son Corp. The third business is identified as Indio Jefferson Petroleum I in campaign filings. It does not appear to be a business incorporated in California, but campaign filings by Wilson and Glenn Miller identified its address at an Arco station in Indio and a P.O. Box also associated with Chandi.
In total, all of the above have donated $24,000 to Wilson, Miller, Holmes, Joan Dzuro and Troy Strange.
These exclude another vehicle through which Chandi contributes to candidates: Integrity PAC.
Haagen and related contributors
Haagen is the owner of Empire Polo Club, the venue that hosts the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. He also is a real estate developer operating under the name Haagen Co.
Campaign finance records show Haagen and Empire Polo Club, together, have donated $22,500 to Indio candidates since 2014 — not counting donations from Integrity PAC. Wilson was the largest recipient of donations from Empire Polo and Haagen individually, receiving $10,000 from Haagen and Empire Polo combined.
Earlier this year, Haagen Co. purchased the Indio Fashion Mall for $10 million and has floated plans to transform the ailing shopping center into an open-air market with a theater, hotel and gym. As part of its plans, the company is in talks with the city to purchase a 20-acre parcel adjacent to the mall property.
Tracy and Cole Burr
Burrtec Waste and Recycling Services, owned by Tracy and Cole Burr, has provided residential and commercial solid waste services to the city since July 2010. The contract ends June 31, 2019, when the new Indio City Council will decide whether to renew the contract. The company also provides services to Coachella, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and other unincorporated areas in the Coachella Valley. The Burrs have given $17,000 since 2014 to Wilson, Strange, Miller and Holmes.
Fiesta Ford in Indio, under the same ownership umbrella as Palm Springs Motors in Cathedral City, has donated $11,300 since 2014 to Miller, Wilson, Strange, Watson and Holmes. Fiesta Ford supplies the majority of the city’s police vehicles. Indio City Manager Mark Scott said Ford or Chevrolet manufacture the most commonly used police vehicles.
Desert Sun reporter Nicole Hayden covers health and healthcare in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at Nicole.Hayden@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4623. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.
Amy DiPierro is a real estate and business reporter at The Desert Sun. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-218-2359. Follow her on Twitter, @amydipierro.