Kelvin Barrios, candidate for San Diego City Council, appears at Golden Hall on election night. / Photo by Megan Wood

After the Union-Tribune reported he was under criminal investigation, Kelvin Barrios, a candidate in the District 9 City Council race, issued a press release announcing four ways in which he had been vindicated.

All four of those claims are either misleading or incorrect.

Last year, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined Barrios, a labor organizer and former staffer City Council President Georgette Gómez, more than $4,000 after concluding he illegally spent more than $8,000 while working on a local school board campaign and as treasurer for the California Young Democrats Latino Caucus.

In December, Barrios’ political opponent, Sean Elo, a community college district trustee, announced that he had filed a new complaint with the FPPC alleging another 29 instances of misspent funds, from 2015 through 2017, totaling $3,600 from the San Diego County Young Democrats, where both candidates were members and Barrios was a former treasurer.

Elo said he gave the FPPC bank statements detailing the illegal expenditures — various payments to convenience stores and restaurants, and mobile transfers to Barrios’s personal bank account.

On Sunday, hours before the Democratic Party’s Ethics Committee was set to take testimony on the embezzlement charge, the Union-Tribune reported that Barrios was “the subject of a criminal investigation by local prosecutors.”

The following day, as Democratic activists were preparing to debate which of the two D9 candidates, if any, deserved their endorsement, Barrios issued a press release in which he portrayed Elo’s campaign as desperately trying to derail his own, because he had more money and political backing.

It concluded by making the following four statements, all of which are misleading or incorrect.

‘The FPPC has dismissed the complaint filed by Mr. Barrios’ opponent’

The state’s political watchdog is responsible for enforcing the Political Reform Act and in a letter to Elo on Jan. 8, said it would not be investigating the embezzlement complaint. But not for a lack of merit.

Galena West, chief of the commission’s enforcement division, cited Barrios’ unpaid position and the fact he wasn’t subject to certain disclosure requirements under the law.

“Since Mr. Barrios was in a volunteer position with the San Diego County Young Democrats and there is no indication that he met the other criteria for liability under the Act, the Enforcement Division will not pursue this matter further,” West wrote. “The activity alleged is outside the purview of the Act.”

An email reviewed by VOSD shows that a San Diego County District Attorney’s Office investigator began inquiring into the embezzlement allegation in March, after the FPPC said it was outside its purview

‘The City Attorney found no grounds to pursue the complaint’

The city attorney’s job is to provide the City Council and city managers with legal advice and to prosecute or defend the city in cases where it is a party. That includes misdemeanors.

But Hilary Nemchik, a city attorney spokeswoman, wrote in an email: “Our Office never received a complaint regarding Mr. Barrios.”

‘The District Attorney’s office dismissed complaint and did not move forward with an investigation’

Interviews and emails reviewed by VOSD confirmed that as recently as July, the DA’s office was continuing to contact local Democrats with questions about Barrios. It’s possible, as Barrios’ campaign insisted, that prosecutors have dropped their inquiry since then.

But the DA’s office forthrightly said it did not dismiss any complaint, as Barrios claimed.

“While we cannot comment on, nor confirm the existence of a potential investigation,” said DA spokesman Steve Walker, “we can state that our office did not dismiss a criminal complaint or clear anyone of any wrongdoing in this matter.”

‘San Diego County Democratic Party Ethics Committee decided to suspend further action on this complaint’

The Democratic Party has not closed its inquiry into the complaint. In fact, it’s still actively gathering more information on the matter.

County party chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy told me in an email:

The San Diego County Democratic Party does not comment on potential, ongoing, or unverified complaints. However, because protecting the Ethics process is an imperative for the Party I can say that it would be inaccurate to say that the complaint is closed or that no action was taken. The Party is currently awaiting information from the complainant, the respondent, and if there is an investigation, the District Attorney’s office.

The status of “suspended” simply means we are waiting for additional information before closing this complaint.

The Barrios campaign didn’t return requests for comment but his lawyer told the U-T that the press release was a mistake.

“This was prepared and submitted in error and without Mr. Barrios’ ratification,” the statement said, according to the newspaper. “A correction shall be forthcoming.”

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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