Assemblyman Todd Gloria at Politifest / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Assemblyman Todd Gloria pulled papers for his mayoral run Wednesday, a formality in a race for which he’s already emerged as a clear frontrunner while encountering only one real problem thus far.

In August, a flash scandal erupted over the fact that he had opened a 2020 re-election committee for his Assembly seat, covering the same election cycle in which he was ostensibly already running for mayor.

One of his opponents, Councilwoman Barbara Bry, set the controversy into motion when she asked during a debate whether Gloria was committed to becoming mayor or keeping his options open in Sacramento.

It continued when Gloria reported himself to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to file a form stating his intention to run for Assembly, a requirement before he could have raised the $25,000 he went on to collect for the committee in the year’s first six months.

Then a Hillcrest resident sued Gloria over the ordeal, alleging campaign finance violations, after first sending a letter to prosecutors alleging money laundering, and later unsuccessfully trying to get a judge to bar Gloria from spending any money from the Assembly account.

The issue has died down, and in recent weeks Gloria racked up endorsements from major labor groups, the county Democratic Party and just about every significant elected official in town, cementing him as the race’s frontrunner.

Yet the FPPC still has not issued any fine for the violation Gloria copped to, or any other violation it finds investigating the matter, and isn’t expected to anytime soon. The lawsuit is ongoing, with the next scheduled court date for Feb. 7, by which time mail balloting for the primary will be underway.

For Gloria, it was an unforced error that caused concern among supporters, who fear it could rear its head again before the general election, and believe it signaled poor attention to detail.

Gloria has said from the beginning that he is running only for mayor. His spokesman Nick Serrano, has said the Assembly committee exists only as an extension of his ongoing responsibilities there – he’s expected to raise money for the party and other Assembly Democrats, and he has other responsibilities as an assemblyman that cost money, but wouldn’t be appropriate to pay for from his office budget.

Indeed, the committee handed out $14,400 this year to Assembly Democrats, another $1,000 to Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential bid and $5,000 to the county party that the campaign says was for a table at an annual party fundraising event.

But the Gloria for Assembly 2020 committee also spent $8,000 on campaign consultants during the first six months of the year, even though Gloria has said unequivocally that he is not running for Assembly in 2020.

Each of those consultants is also getting paid by Gloria’s mayoral campaign.

So if there’s no Assembly campaign, what were the consultants being paid for?

“Each of these expenditures is directly connected to the ongoing administration of the committee,” Serrano wrote in an email.

The Gemini Group, Gloria’s longtime general consultant, got a relatively small amount, $268. Serrano received $500. Gloria’s fundraisers, KM Strategies, collected $4,391. And two campaign treasury companies got about $3,000.

“The Gemini Group payment was a reimbursement for web hosting services,” Serrano wrote. “KM Strategies was paid for fundraising consulting services to the committee. The payment to me was for work done in connection with the California Democratic Party Convention last May, and the other two payments were for committee treasury services.”

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the expenditures appear to be legal, even if it’s awkward for Gloria to explain why he’s paying political consultants for a campaign he says he isn’t running.

“A lot of things that are legal feel improper,” she said.

Levinson said Serrano’s payment sounded like an expense that could have been covered by an officeholder account, which allow elected officials to fundraise for certain activities associated with their jobs but that that aren’t appropriate to be covered by their office budgets.

The big-picture issue, Levinson said, is that it’s unavoidable that any campaign spending raises a politician’s profile with the public, regardless of what bucket it comes out of.

“If I’m running for two offices, and spending money out of one account to tell you I’m a good official or on communication that raises my profile, that bleeds over to both campaigns,” she said.

On its own, having two open campaign committees isn’t a problem, said FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga in an email.

“I can say generally speaking, it is OK and not uncommon for a person to have multiple committees,” Wierenga wrote. “Most common is when an incumbent has a committee open for that office and another for an office they are thinking about or planning to run.”

Usually, though, politicians aren’t simultaneously running for two offices during the same cycle. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, for instance, is running for re-election right now, but is also running for secretary of state in 2022.

It’s not so simple for Gloria.

He opened the 2020 Assembly committee in February, a month after he opened a mayoral committee and publicly announced his mayoral run. In March, he transferred nearly $300,000 into the 2020 committee from his 2018 Assembly re-election committee. The money in the 2018 account was about to become surplus funds, which would have restricted how he could use it, to things like paying for Serrano’s work at the state convention.

Gloria’s campaign says it created the 2020 account to fulfill his fundraising expectations within the party. As the Assembly’s majority whip, he needs to bring in money for vulnerable caucus members.

That doesn’t necessarily explain why he needed to transfer the 2018 money to his 2020 campaign first, rather than donating it to other caucus members ahead of it hitting the surplus funds deadline.

“He could have donated the money outright,” Levinson said. “There’s nothing that would have prevented him from doing that. And if he wants to keep fundraising, nothing would keep him from holding fundraisers for other candidates or the party.”

This all falls into the category of bad optics, but probably fine, Levinson said.

The one thing that could be a real problem, Levinson said, was Gloria’s decision in August to file a statement of intention with the state saying he was running for Assembly.

That cleaned up the paperwork problem associated with Gloria for Assembly 2020. But it created a new problem: He submitted a signed declaration saying he was running for a seat for which he has adamantly insisted he is not, in fact, running.

“If you file a statement of intention, the idea is you’re signing a document with the government to say, ‘I intend to run for this seat,’ not ‘I intend to use this campaign account to move money, even if that movement of money may be legal,’” Levinson said.

She did not, however, think it was likely that filing the form could be considered perjury, even though the form was signed “under penalty of perjury,” as press reports have noted.

“Comments to the press saying that he isn’t running aren’t under-oath statements,” she said. “How many times have presidential candidates said, ‘I’m not running,’ only to change their mind?”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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