In 2017, when Mark Arabo sat for a deposition about where hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent while he led the Neighborhood Market Association, an attorney grilled him about why so much had gone to Jesus Cardenas, a political consultant.
Cardenas did everything, Arabo said. Not only did he help the group’s board of directors with government affairs, he could also put on an event or a golf tournament. If Arabo was the CEO of the association, Cardenas, he said, was something like the COO and the board trusted him.
“He’s like the — my perception is they thought he was a jack-of-all-trades. You need something, go to Jesus. You know, we have an event coming up, go to Jesus,” Arabo said.
For a long time, Cardenas has been a jack-of-all-trades throughout San Diego County politics but particularly in South Bay. And now that District Attorney Summer Stephan has charged him with multiple felony counts along with his sister, Andrea Cardenas, for an allegedly fraudulent application for a Covid relief loan from the government, the web of trades in which the Cardenas siblings were involved could ensnare many. This prosecution is only about the federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan the Cardenas siblings took in 2021 and the alleged lies or misrepresentations they presented to get it.
But for many years, they have been balancing two trades that are impossible to balance: the lobbying and advocacy for companies and interests while also trying to be public officials charged with regulating some of those same interests. The Cardenas siblings most dicey of those juggling acts has always involved the cannabis industry where they served both as hired operatives for multiple entities while Andrea Cardenas sat on the Chula Vista City Council and Jesus Cardenas managed Whitburn’s office where cannabis regulations were discussed.
They both tried to argue that they were far removed from the industry.
“I don’t have any clients, really – I do a lot of the admin stuff, and you know, since I got elected, that’s been an even bigger market, it’s always been very difficult for people to force me to work on something that I’m not passionate about,” she said. “And so, even now when we’re talking about the cannabis industry, I’m very careful not to blend those lines, because if it doesn’t look good, it’s not good.”
This week, though, the district attorney said she and her brother blended some lines. Stephan accused them of applying for a PPP loan to protect the wages of 34 of their employees during the Covid shutdowns. But those employees were actually employees of the Harbor Collective, a cannabis store near San Diego’s Barrio Logan.
The fallout of the case could be limited. Maybe this is all. But if it’s not, the web could be huge involving people throughout Democratic politics, the cannabis industry and builders. Here’s a quick guide on a few of the things the Cardenas have been involved in.
The charges themselves: They’re worth reading. Stephan alleges that some of the PPP loan went directly to fund a $33,500 loan Andrea Cardenas made to her own City Council campaign. PPP funds were specifically meant to keep people employed during the pandemic shutdowns.
The fake clubs: In 2019, we wrote about the how a Democratic activist, who is now a member of the San Diego Unified school board, complained that Jesus and Andrea Cardenas were operating a bunch of fake Democratic Party clubs that were having an outsized influence on the party’s endorsement process.
“Party activists have alleged that the clubs exist only on paper and that Jesus Cardenas controls them — and much of the candidate endorsement process, which helps determine who gets financial support, by extension,” we wrote.
That party spending: Jesus Cardenas was also the recipient of a lot of the Democratic Party’s spending. The Union-Tribune revealed earlier this year that he had continued to receive $200,000 in party spending even though the firm he ran, Grassroots Resources, was suspended because of tax issues. That itself was a scandal but it further highlighted how much Cardenas was juggling while also serving as Whitburn’s chief of staff. Whitburn later gave Jesus Cardenas an ultimatum: Either he needed to choose his lobbying business or public service. He ended up quitting.
“I want to put all of my energy and effort into electing Democrats and supporting issues that uplift our community and address the complex challenges facing our region,” he told us.
But then, this: By October, La Prensa reported that National City Councilman Marcus Bush was accusing the Cardenas siblings of playing both sides of his campaign – spending money to oppose him while collecting Democratic Pary spending meant to support him. But the paper also surfaced a complicated debt play deployed with some of the party spending (honestly, I don’t totally understand it despite a few people trying to explain it to me).
Finally, a provocative tweet: Lots of people were talking about this post from U-T reporter Jeff McDonald.
“Hard not to notice that these minority defendants are facing 12 felony counts and years in prison while the rich White guys behind #101AshStreet cost taxpayers at least 1000 times as much money and @SummerStephan wrestled only a single misdemeanor and $400 fine from that crowd,” he wrote.
South Bay political leaders have long alleged that public integrity investigations seem to disproportionately focus on people of color in the area. And there certainly may be something to it.
A couple things to keep in mind, though: These are just charges. You never know what a plea may lead to. McDonald was comparing a plea deal to charges. And while it is true that Jason Hughes ended up paying only a few hundred dollars in fines for representing both sides, secretly, of the deals the city made to purchase two high rises downtown, he also had to pay the city $9.4 million. I’m sure a savvy investor like him enjoyed having several millions interest free for that long but being forced to pay back $9.4 million was not nothing.
Nevertheless, it will be very interesting to see where the DA, or other state and federal law enforcement agencies take it from here.
Maienschein pledges full terms: A couple weeks ago, we tried to understand why Assemblymember Brian Maienschein had a campaign account opened to run for attorney general in 2030. This was weird because he’s running for city attorney now. I’m not that naive, I know having future campaign committees open is part of how the game works to be able to raise more money and keep options to move it around open in the future. But still, it was awkward. And then his longtime aide, Lance Witmondt confirmed it may happen.
“Brian running for attorney general is definitely a possibility in the future,” Witmondt said. Now, he’s done with that.
“I pledge to serve out the full eight years of my term as city attorney,” he told the crowd at the Pacific Beach Democratic Club. The group endorsed Maienschein’s opponent, Heather Ferbert.
Shroom reboot: Assemblymember Marie Waldron, who represents much of East and North County in the Legislature and used to lead the Assembly Republican caucus is joining with state Sen. Scott Wiener, a liberal Democrat, to put together a new bill to allow for the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Wiener’s bill this year to decriminalize some natural psychedelics like mushrooms was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Waldron had voted for it but now a tweaked version could stand a better chance of passing.
It’s election week: The final day to vote in the special elections is Tuesday. There’s the race to replace Nathan Fletcher on the County Board of Supervisors. Democrat Monica Montgomery Steppe faces Republican Amy Reichert. The primary for the race for Chula Vista City Attorney: Three candidates may throw that to a runoff. And finally, voters in Fallbrook and Rainbow are expected to support the two water districts that want to leave the San Diego County Water Authority.
Don’t forget to read this: The Union-Tribune as an institution is entering its end stage. My old pal and Voice of San Diego’s former editor, Andrew Donohue did a deep dive for us on what happened to the paper and what’s to come.
“So, for the first time since the founders of the San Diego Union unloaded a printing press off a ship from San Francisco and set up shop in Old Town in 1868, the city’s newspaper doesn’t have a headquarters. All that’s left is The San Diego Union-Tribune logo, gracing the top of a downtown skyscraper until a crew gets up there to remove it.”
Related: Donohue started this week as the investigations editor for CalMatters. Also, Steve Breen, the cartoonist who left the Union-Tribune, is now at inewsource.
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