San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post originally appeared in the Dec. 7 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

For weeks after Council President Georgette Gómez announced she was vacating her Council seat to run for Congress, there was little attention on the race to replace her. Candidates announced their candidacy and lined up support, but it was perhaps the least-discussed race of the five open Council seats.

But for two weeks now, Kelvin Barrios, a labor organizer and former Gómez staffer, has had to answer accusations about misspent funds during a school board campaign for which he was a consultant, and from his time as treasurer for the California Young Democrats Latino Caucus.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Barrios more than $4,000 after finding that he illegally spent more than $8,000 from both the school board committee and the caucus account. They said he cut checks to himself or used a debit card connected to the accounts on personal expenditures, and was unable to provide any documentation showing the payments were associated with official business.

“Barrios admitted to FPPC investigators that these purchases were for his personal benefit,” the FPPC ruling reads on the spending from the school board race.

It came to the same conclusion on his spending for the California Young Democrats Latino Caucus.

“The Caucus Committee identified, and Barrios agreed, that several expenditures were not authorized uses of committee funds and were for Barrios’ personal benefit,” the FPPC wrote.

Barrios argued to FPPC investigators that he thought he was reimbursing himself for things he was owed. But the FPPC determined that “the lack of recordkeeping further obfuscates Barrios’s use of committee funds.”

The investigators added that Barrios “exhibited a pattern by using multiple committee accounts in this way.”

Not a small thing: The FPPC ruling makes clear it took Barrios’s violations seriously. For one, he had already violated the Fair Political Practices Act by failing to file proper paperwork on the school board campaign. He paid a small fine for that, but the FPPC doesn’t like repeat offenses.

But the bigger issue, the FPPC wrote, was the nature of the violation: personal use of campaign funds.

“This is an important restriction, which helps to distinguish campaign contributions from gifts,” the FPPC wrote. “When a public official makes personal use of campaign funds, it is a serious violation of the Act that erodes public confidence in the political process by creating the appearance that lawful campaign contributions are personal gifts to the public official.”

Barrios said the problem resulted from his decision to work for candidates and groups that had little money and no ability to pay for advice from a lawyer or treasurer.

“As a result, I made reporting and reimbursement mistakes that I take responsibility for. I have participated fully with the FPPC to ensure the errors I unknowingly committed were made right,” he wrote in a statement.

Another allegation: One of his opponents, San Diego Community College District Trustee Sean Elo, made a fresh allegation Friday, announcing that he had reported to the FPPC another 29 instances of misspent funds, from 2015 through 2017, totaling $3,600 from the San Diego County Young Democrats, another group for which Barrios was treasurer.

Elo said he sent bank statements to the FPPC detailing what he says were illegal expenditures – which were payments to convenience stores and restaurants and mobile transfers to Barrios’s personal account.

The previous FPPC decision and the additional complaint, Elo argued, “provides evidence that Barrios has repeatedly violated the trust of multiple parties who entrusted him with money.”

Barrios did not respond to a request for comment on Elo’s complaint and allegation. An FPPC spokesman confirmed that the agency had received the complaint; it is now reviewing whether the complaint warrants an investigation.

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

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