A complaint filed by IBEW 1245 activist Eric Sunderland has sparked an investigation of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson by state election regulators.
Johnson will be investigated over allegations that his solicitation of thousands of dollars in donations from Wal-Mart and a charity funded by the company’s founding family created a conflict of interest in his recent vote to ease regulations of big-box superstores in the city, according to a report published Sept. 10 by the Sacramento Bee.
Sunderland, 45, is a Sacramento Municipal Utility District employee, former city school board candidate, and 10-year member of IBEW 1245. Sunderland had called for Johnson to recuse himself from the big-box vote at the City Council last month. The City Attorney’s Office determined that the mayor did not have a conflict and could vote on the matter.
The mayor voted in favor of easing restrictions on big-box superstores within city limits. The 6-2 City Council vote reversed most of a 2006 ordinance that required big-box chains such as Wal-Mart and Target to conduct wage and benefit studies of businesses before being allowed to construct new stores.
A repeal of the big-box ordinance was opposed by many organized labor leaders and small business advocates. Labor in particular has battled Wal-Mart over wage and benefit issues, the Bee story noted.
Johnson and other elected officials at City Hall have come to rely on behests to help fund and promote nonprofits and charities. In 2005, council members raised just $15,750 in behests. So far this year, more than $1.5 million has been donated on behalf of city politicians. Of that, $935,629 has been donated through the mayor, records show.
At the same time, scrutiny of behested payments has increased.
Just last year, Johnson was fined $37,500 by the FPPC for failing to report more than $3.5 million in behests in a timely matter.
The Fair Political Practices Commission’s investigation will examine whether Johnson solicited money from the Walton Family Foundation for an education organization he started in order to pay for trips he made last year – and whether those payments resulted in Johnson receiving gifts in excess of state limits.
Another focus of the FPPC probe will examine whether Walton Family Foundation donations to a national education reform group launched by Johnson’s wife led to a financial conflict for Johnson in the big-box vote. The Walton Family Foundation announced earlier this year it was giving $8 million to StudentsFirst, the Sacramento-based organization started and run by Michelle Rhee.
Johnson could face fines of up to $5,000 for each allegation, said Gary Winuk, the head of the FPPC’s enforcement division.