The item was under the consent agenda and in any standard meeting for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, it would be routine to approve all items under this section. But it was not a routine meeting on the morning of July 18. Before the state FPPC could approve all items, they stopped to discuss Item 3, "In the Matter of Juanita Perea."
The former executive director of Oasis Charter Public School in Salinas, was found to have violated the state's conflict-of-interest laws when she, acting alone, approved work on school grounds through her husband's company, Jimenez Gardening and Maintenance.
From 2015-2017, the FPPC found the work totaled over $132,000. Counting each calendar year as a violation, the commission planned on penalizing her $12,000—or $4,000 for each count.
But $12,000 of Perea's money is not $132,000 of public funds in return. That unbalanced equation was not lost on two commissioners and it was enough of discrepancy that the commission took time to discuss the possibility of restitution.
Commissioner Frank Cardenas noted that Perea signed around 40 checks and asked Chief of Enforcement Galena West why each of those checks wasn't being treated as a separate violation, which could be fined up to $5,000 each.
"Why are not each of those signatures and instances of knowing—or at least wildly wanton and reckless disregard…not each subject to a dollar fine?" Cardenas asked.
West responded that in these cases, FPPC staffers pursue settlement over the maximum penalty. But theoretically, if they were to fine Perea the full allowable penalty for conflict-of-interest violations coming from those checks alone, she could end up paying $200,000 "or so," West told the commissioners.
West also pointed out that Perea took precautions to disclose her financial interest to the public. When Perea filed her Form 700s, she disclosed she was the manager of the her husband's business in 2017. This was also before the Oasis school board adopted an anti-nepotism policy. Those disclosure forms saved her from the full $5,000 penalty.
Commissioner Brian Hatch also chimed in on the settlement. He said that although the commission couldn't deem Perea's funneling of public funds into her husband's wallet as "money laundering"—because the FPPC's purview is elected and appointed official spending—it seemed to be money laundering, by any other name.
"I hate to invoke it, but does crime pay?" Hatch asked. "There is a pocket. And it was enriched by her knowing, right? It's a payment essentially to herself out of public charter school funds.
"I struggle to determine for myself that $12,000 compared to $132,000—that we know of—that this is, for lack of a better, word fair."
Hatch then suggested that even if the FPPC could not investigate Perea for laundering that perhaps the District Attorney could. "This case does make one pause, and maybe we could refer this to the district attorney, as well," he said.
"The penalty says crime does pay."
The commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the proposed settlement agreement in which Perea will pay $12,000, but also to refer the case to the DA's office.
Perea has yet to respond to the Weekly's request for comment.