Pismo Councilman Erik Howell cleared of wrongdoing, but it doesn’t mean he’s in the right

Pismo Beach City Councilman and Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell.
Pismo Beach City Councilman and Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Pismo Beach City Councilman Erik Howell, who also serves on the California Coastal Commission, has been cleared of wrongdoing for accepting a $1,000 campaign contribution from a donor with close ties to Coastal Commission lobbyist Susan McCabe.

The donation was made by Antoinette DeVargas, the domestic partner and operations manager for McCabe, who represented the developer of the Silver Shoals housing project in Pismo Beach. The project was reviewed by the Pismo Beach City Council and the Coastal Commission.

Opponents of the housing development accused Howell of violating campaign finance rules by accepting the DeVargas donation and later voting on the project, but the California Fair Political Practices Commission concluded there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.

During Howell’s fall campaign for City Council — a campaign he wound up winning — he told The Tribune Editorial Board that he wasn’t aware of the connection between McCabe and DeVargas when he accepted the donation. Fair enough. But as we said then, Howell could have returned the contribution later, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

We endorsed Howell for re-election, and we still believe he was the best choice for Pismo Beach, but on this issue we haven’t changed our minds. He should have taken the high road and returned the money. Howell may have escaped the FPPC unscathed, but we won’t let him walk away without a bucket of briny brickbats.

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