Petaluma City Councilmember Gabe Kearney Faces 16-Count Campaign Finance Complaint

A complaint filed with a state campaign finance regulation commission alleges that Petaluma City Councilmember Gabe Kearney has violated campaign finance rules 16 times during the past four years by failing to file paperwork and pay fees on time.

The complaint against Kearney, filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), alleges that Kearney filed numerous forms late, failed to pay annual FPPC fees on time for the past four years, and gathered over $5,000 in political contributions before formally declaring his candidacy in the November 2016 election.

Though the complaint lists the forms as allegedly late, not entirely missing, some of the same forms are not available at the Petaluma City Clerk’s office, making it unclear how much money—if any—Kearney received from donors at the end of his 2016 campaign and during his latest four-year term on the council.

At a meeting in May, the FPPC’s legal staff determined that there was “probable cause” that Kearney had violated state rules repeatedly. While a finding of probable cause does not mean there was a violation it does signal that FPPC staff found some evidence to support the complaint. The vast majority of cases end in a settlement, according to an FPPC spokesperson. The FPPC does not comment on specific, on-going cases.

In response to questions about the complaint, Kearney told the Bohemian on Thursday morning that the late filings stem from a paperwork error at the end of 2016.

“At the end of the [2016] campaign I submitted the forms that I thought were adequate to close out my campaign account. I have been informed that they were not the proper forms to close out the account and I am working with the FPPC to close out this in the proper way,” Kearney wrote, adding that he hopes to close the case in the next few weeks.

Kearney’s explanation does not appear to apply to six of the 16 counts against him. Five of the counts predate the end of the 2016 campaign and another count, an alleged failure to file an annual Statement of Economic Interests on time in 2019, is unrelated to the 2016 campaign committee.

In addition, a form covering contributions to Kearney’s 2016 campaign between Oct. 23 through Dec. 31, 2016, was not available on the City Clerk’s website at the time of publication.

Acting City Clerk Samantha Pascoe told the Bohemian on Thursday that Kearney is working with the FPPC to amend two 2016 forms—including the one covering campaign contributions Kearney received between Oct. 23 through Dec. 31, 2016—which are currently not available on the city’s website. A recently-added note on the city’s 2016 campaign finance page states that the amended forms will be published soon.

Kearney did not respond to a request for clarification of his explanation on Thursday.

Ann Ravel, a former chair of the FPPC who reviewed the complaint, said that the number of alleged violations listed in the complaint against the Petaluma City Councilmember is unusually high and could result in a large fine.

“This is an awful lot of instances of violations. It’s quite unusual actually,” Ravel said in a phone interview.

Ravel said she believes that the commission’s staff would have considered the possibility of the paperwork error Kearney cited before deciding that there was probable cause.

“Certainly the FPPC would have looked at the circumstances. Either you filed or you didn’t… They would have known whether [the campaign committee] was closed out, whether it should have been closed out,” Ravel said. “If they thought that [Kearney’s explanation] was a reasonable rationale for failing to file they would not have charged him.”

The 16 counts against Kearney include soliciting and accepting “campaign contributions totaling approximately $5,315” before filing paperwork announcing his intention to run in the November 2016 election and failing to file eight campaign finance statements on time between Sept. 24, 2016 and Jan. 31, 2020. Kearney and his 2016 committee also allegedly failed to pay an annual FPPC fee—and the four resulting $150 late fees—every year between 2016 through 2020.

One form available on the City Clerk’s website, which the FPPC complaint lists as due on Sept. 29, 2016, was submitted on Oct. 6, 2016, according to a datestamp on the form.

“It looks to me like there’s probably going to be a big fine involved,” Ravel, the former FPPC chair, opined.

Kearney was first appointed to the Petaluma City Council in 2011. He won reelection in 2016 and recently filed paperwork announcing his intention to run again in the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

According to his most recent Statement of Economic Interests, a form politicians and many public employees are required to file each year, Kearney worked in 2019 as an Emergency Services Coordinator for Cal OES, the state emergency management department.

All told, three sitting city council members—Kearney, Mike Healy, and Kathy Miller—are running against five newcomers—Brian Barnacle, Robert Conklin, Susan Kirks, Dennis Pocekay, and Lizzie Wallack—for three open seats on the Petaluma council this November.

The complaint against Kearney is included on pages 12 and 13 of this document.

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