Copelands will be fined for contributing money to stop Dalidio project

State commission says San Luis Obispo developers hid contributions in campaign against initiative

acornejo@thetribunenews.comOctober 4, 2010 

The state Fair Political Practices Commission will consider levying up to $80,000 in fines against Jim and Tom Copeland for concealing contributions of more than $220,000 toward the campaign against Ernie Dalidio’s efforts to develop his San Luis Obispo property.

Banker David Booker also faces a portion of the fines. He acted as the manager for Responsible County Development LLC, which was formed to funnel contributions to the committee opposing Measure J.

The Copelands violated the Political Reform Act, the FPPC staff report says, because the limited liability corporation they created hid the names of its members and failed to disclose the true purpose of the $220,944 “loan” it made to the “No on J” committee.

The Copeland brothers are longtime business owners in downtown San Luis Obispo. Their properties include San Luis Obispo’s Downtown Centre, the Court Street development and the planned Chinatown project.

Until Monday, the Copelands had not been identified as contributors to Responsible County Development, which provided more than 80 percent of the financing for the anti- Measure J campaign.

The Copelands would not comment directly Monday. But Suzanne Fryer, their counsel and spokeswoman for their firm, Copeland Properties, said, “We cooperated with the FPPC and are looking forward to putting this matter behind us.”

The Copelands waived their rights to certain hearings and to be heard by the commission, according to documents released Monday, resulting in the default recommendation to the FPPC’s enforcement division to pay the full penalty amount.

Fryer would not comment on why that decision was made.

The FPPC will meet Oct. 14 in Sacramento to vote on the penalty.

Case background

For nearly two decades, rancher-developer Dalidio has wanted to build a shopping center on 131 acres of farmland next to Highway 101 on San Luis Obispo’s south side.

But the project has also had a history of opposition. In recent years, several ballot measures have gone before voters to determine the project’s fate.

The San Luis Obispo City Council approved the project in 2004, in part because Dalidio would have contributed to the funding necessary to build an overpass at the Prado Road-Highway 101 interchange.

But opponents placed Measures A, B and C on the ballot in 2005. The findings released by the FPPC Monday show that the Copelands, and their spouses, along with the LLCs owned by them, contributed $90,300 in support of Measures A,B and C.

City voters denied Dalidio the right to develop the land.

After that, he succeeded in landing a countywide measure on the ballot. Known as Measure J, it also faced significant opposition.

The Copelands contributed $20,000 in their names to the committee opposing Measure J, according to the FPPC report.

According to the agency, the pair then contributed more than $220,000 to the committee via Responsible County Development, managed by Booker.

The contributions took the form of loans that were never repaid by the organization opposing Measure J — the County Coalition for Local Control, No on Measure J-06 committee.

Those contributions accounted for the bulk of the money received by the committee, according to the FPPC.

Measure J was passed overwhelmingly in November 2006. A Superior Court judge later struck it down, but it wound its way on appeal to the state Supreme Court, which validated the measure. Since 2006, some of the retail stores planned for the Dalidio site, such as Old Navy and Target, have opened or are under construction at other sites within town.

Dalidio filed a complaint with the FPPC three years ago against Responsible County Development, and against the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association. He said that the public had the right to know who was behind the campaign.

The claim against the Downtown Association was dismissed June 29 because there was “insufficient evidence” that the organization violated the Political Reform Act.

In its report Monday, the FPPC said that the Copelands used the LLC to conceal the true source of the funds and “circumvent” the Political Reform Act.

“This case involves a series of transactions which prevented the public from learning the true source of funds that were used to try and defeat Measure J,” according to the FPPC findings.

“The public harm inherent when someone makes contributions in a name other than their legal name and fails to properly disclose the true source of contributions made, especially when pertinent information is not disclosed before an election as required, is that the public is deprived of the right to transparency in the political process and the full knowledge of who is supporting a particular position before they make their decision to vote.”

Financial impact seen

Mayor Dave Romero said that the Copelands’ efforts to stop the Dalidio project have hurt the city financially.

“It turns out negatively, I believe, for the San Luis Obispo community,” he said. “We could have had a working interchange. We could have had stores that would help our economy and helped the shopping capability of our city.”

“There’s millions of dollars involved in unrealized improvements that would have been made to the city, and maybe millions of dollars in taxes,” Romero said. “We’re missing out on the sales we would have been getting all these years.”

Asked if the Copelands followed fair business practices, Romero replied, “Absolutely not.”

“Fair Political Practices are charged with seeing that things are done fairly,” he said. “There was always a question about whether not listing the LLC was appropriate.”

Despite the delays, Romero said the Dalidio marketplace project will eventually move forward.

Dalidio has not disclosed his current plans for his site.

Highlights of the FPPC report

The Copelands face 16 counts of violating the Political Reform Act, each carrying a maximum penalty of $5,000 per count. Highlights include the following:

• Jim and Tom Copeland face eight counts, some as individuals and some jointly, for making contributions in a name other than their legal names.

• Failure to file a required semiannual campaign statement as affiliated entities for contributions made.

• Failure to file a required late contribution campaign report for a contribution made.

• Six counts are against Jim and Tom Copeland and David Booker, as manager of their limited liability corporation, for making contributions without disclosing the true source of those contributions.

To read the FPPC report on the Dalidio case, go to: www.fppc.ca.gov/agendas/10-10/CopelandPropertiesExh.pdf

Staff Writer Sarah Linn contributed to this report.

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