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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 | Federal prosecutors will begin airing to a jury Monday allegations that a well-known political operative and the former superintendent of a South Bay community college illegally used public money to fund ads that promoted an $89 million construction bond.
The Justice Department has accused local political consultant Larry Remer and former Southwestern Community College President Serafin Zasueta for illegally paying for a television commercial from the 2000 Proposition AA campaign with community college money.
The indictment doesn’t accuse Remer or Zasueta of personally profiting off the transaction, but instead alleges that they masked the school’s purchase of the political ad by claiming Southwestern purchased videotapes of the commercial and its outtakes to teach students how television ads are made.
Sixty-nine percent of the voters within the community college district passed the bond referendum, which is funding the refurbishing of classrooms and public safety infrastructure improvements at the Chula Vista campus and the construction of a student education center in Otay Mesa.
The case’s legal matters are accompanied by concerns that prosecutors are inappropriately wielding the federal government’s clout to resolve a relatively minor infraction that is normally handled by the state’s ethics arm.
The motivation for wielding such heavy machinery, some say, is to settle a political score. Remer, a Democratic mainstay in the San Diego political scene, alleged as much in a letter to the editor he wrote to a local newspaper just days after being indicted.
“Others may disagree, but I believe there is a clear pattern that the Justice Department is targeting or ‘cherry-picking’ Democrats,” Remer wrote in a letter The San Diego Union-Tribune published Aug. 28, 2004. The Justice Department is an arm of the federal government, overseen by President Bush, a Republican.
In his letter, Remer compared the harshness of his case to more egregious violations by Republicans that were settled outside of criminal court by the Fair Political Practices Commission, or FPPC, which handles government ethics complaints in California.
Others, such as Calpeek, a weekly insider political report based in Beverly Hills, note that the investigation began initially with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who competed in an often-unpleasant campaign against a client of Remer’s, Paul Pfinsgt, in 2002.
Representatives from the offices of both Dumanis and U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, a President Bush appointee, declined to comment on the political overtones of the case, but Remer’s peers in the political world say criminally prosecuting a $5,870 dispute is, at the very least, strange.
“I have a difficult time believing the district attorney or U.S. attorney has nothing better to do other than indicting political opponents. At the same time, it’s a type of infraction that ordinarily gets a wrist-slap from the FPPC,” said Christopher Crotty, a local consultant who works primarily with Democratic candidates. “You do have to wonder what the impetus was to move forward on such a small issue that isn’t dealt with as criminal matter.”
Crotty and other consultants said the case is being watched closely by political consultants throughout the country.
“Any indication that there’s a new way that things are being done or are of a different persuasion in your industry, any business person wants to be aware of that,” said lobbyist John Dadian, a former campaign consultant.
A bevy of political consultants across the nation have taken up Remer’s cause, sending monetary contributions to a legal defense fund and circulating letters of support on his behalf.
“[The prosecution] seems a little bit out of line,” said David Doak, a Washington, D.C.-based media consultant. “We’re all tuned in.”
The case against Zasueta and Remer began with the Southwestern Community College District Board’s outrage at the transaction with Murphy Putnam Media, a Virginia-based advertising company who made the campaign spot.
After Proposition AA’s passage, the campaign closed its offices, but had not paid Murphy Putnam for the ads, as the bill was submitted after the election. To make the payment, Zasueta allegedly agreed to use college funds buy videotapes of the commercial and its outtakes to be used in the classroom.
It is illegal, however, to use public money to fund campaigns of that sort.
Prosecutors point to an e-mail Remer sent to the advertising firm after the election asking them to submit an invoice for the footage under the guise that it was for classroom use “so that Southwestern College could use ‘public funds’ to pay Murphy Putnam for the production money they were owed by the Proposition AA commercial,” the indictment reads.
Michael Pancer, Remer’s attorney, said there was no foul play in the transaction.
“Larry got Murphy Putnam to sell the outtakes, and the e-mails referred to that transaction,” Pancer said Tuesday. “The school has a right to buy the outtakes and that’s what they did.”
Nobody from Murphy Putnam was included in the indictment.
Remer was hired by an outside group, Friends of Southwestern College, to run the campaign for Proposition AA. His consulting firm and printing business were paid $32,000 by the group for their work on the campaign, the indictment said.
Zasueta will stand trial separately, beginning April 24. He was ousted by the community college board in 2003 under the weight of the controversial transaction.
U.S. District Judge John Houston will preside over both trials.
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