There is yet another incarnation of a political action committee that has plagued Livermore for at least a decade.
Friends of Livermore, a PAC around since at least 2011, morphed into Citizens for a Livermore Central Park in 2019. Later in 2019, Protect the Central Park Vote, No on P, was formed. Earlier this year, Move Eden Housing came into being. This month, a group named Take Back Livermore started running ads supporting candidates for Livermore mayor and council and opposing others.
A “non-political” coalition, Save Livermore Downtown (SLD), has been around for several years, running ads opposing council-approved, voter-backed plans for downtown. SLD is one of two groups currently embroiled in lawsuits against the city, with the other being Move Eden Housing (MEH).
All these groups share many of the same people, agents and major contributors and employ the same tactics to obscure who is truly funding them to the extent possible.
The common objective of all these groups is to thwart city council actions to complete the downtown plan through lawsuits, referendums and disinformation, while trying to pack the council with candidates who will do the bidding of the principal players.
While there are small contributions made by many to give the appearance of large support for the groups, in reality it’s a handful of people – and two wealthy individuals in particular – who contribute 90% or more of the contributions each entity receives.
Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) 460 filings show that hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Friends of Livermore (FOL), Citizens for a Livermore Central Park (CFALCP) and Protect the Central Park Vote, No on P (PTCP) were made by Joan Seppala (publisher of the Livermore Independent), Seppala’s relatives – including her husband Lynn Seppala – and Jean King.
Seppala and her relatives contributed $205,000 and King $241,000 to FOL Committee 2018, or approximately 93% of the total $480,473. Seppala and relatives contributed $203,198 and King $49,000 to CFALCP, or approximately 94% of the total $266,783. Seppala and relatives contributed $503,253 and King $49,900 to PTCP, or approximately 91% of the total $605,733.
Based on the patterns established for the FOL, CFALCP and PTCP committees, it is reasonable to assume that Seppala and King will cover the remaining MEH expense balance once a full accounting of the contributions to MEH are made public.
The newest committee, Take Back Livermore (TBL), seems to have been formed for the purpose of supporting a slate of candidates who will fall in line with the wishes of those behind SLD and MEH. The committee has already spent more than $170,400 in support of their slate and in opposition of the alternate candidates as of Oct. 17.
In an atypical move, on Oct. 18, Joan and Lynn Seppala and King contributed $49,500 each to TBL. Not surprisingly, the contribution amounts were below the $50,000 “top contributor” threshold, which mandates disclosure of top contributors on campaign advertising.
Understanding the motivation to keep their names off the campaign ads is easy, but why didn't they follow the well-established pattern and wait. In other words, did the contributions have to be made now.
MEH’s reported contributions reported Oct. 10, which cover Jan.1 to June 30, 2022, of $49,070 currently cover only about 25% of the outstanding expenses of $191,884 – expenses that are guaranteed to increase over the next few months as MEH filed a lawsuit against the city and the city clerk for not processing a referendum to delay the Eden Housing project in downtown.
A ruling handed down Tuesday by Alameda Superior Court Judge Michael Markman in response to the MEH petition ordered MEH to post a $500,000 bond for the action “brought in bad faith, vexatiously, for the purpose of delay, (and) to thwart the low- or moderate-income nature of the housing development project.”
This is the second such order for the groups for the same reason of delaying the housing development. In November, SLD was ordered to post a $500,000 bond. Although the so-called non-political group SLD is not required to file with the FPPC and has been secretive about its principal officers and membership, it is known that both King and Seppala are part of SLD through court records.
In a declaration submitted before the MEH case hearing, Seppala attempted to separate SLD and MEH and preempt the ordering of another bond because it would cause a “financial hardship.” She also insisted, ”MEH strongly supports the development of new affordable housing opportunities in Livermore…”
The court saw through the ruse, though, and noted in the tentative ruling that “Save Livermore Downtown and Move Eden Housing share a common promoter, Joan Seppala, and common litigation counsel. In light of the whole record, Seppala’s conclusory denials of opposition to affordable housing have very little bearing on whether to impose a bond.”
The claim of “financial hardship” was quashed. “Move Eden Housing has received considerable financial support from its backers, and draws the reasonable inference that those supporters can afford the cost of a bond or undertaking in the maximum allowed amount of $500,000.00 if they wish to pursue the Petition,” the document states.
Seppala is not named as a petitioner in any of the lawsuits, and she and King do their utmost to fly under the radar through confluence and convolution. Still, in addition to court documents and FPPC filings, there are also too many similarities in the committees and recognizable maneuvering with the FPPC filing timelines to completely wipe away their fingerprints.
The obfuscation starts with a well-oiled and often-used political machine consisting of the same people, key agents and vendors shared by the groups.
The same names show up in positions for various entities. Richard Ryon is listed as treasurer for FOL Committee 2018 and PTCP, and is now the petition proponent for MEH. Michael Fredrich acted as treasurer for FOL and assistant treasurer for CFALCP. Patricia Mar was the assistant treasurer for CFALCP and PTCP.
For MEH, Stacy Owens from S.E. Owens & Company is listed as treasurer, Peter Sullivan from the same accounting firm is listed as assistant treasurer and Maryann Brent is listed as principal officer. It’s identical for TBL.
The same vendors are used by multiple committees.
Stearns Consulting and Rough House Productions have been involved with every group since at least 2018, and Jim Stearns is the common denominator. Stearns is the president and creative director of Stearns Consulting and listed as the CEO of Rough House Productions on the December 2021 filing with the Secretary of State.
David Binder Research is often used for campaign intelligence and its surveys are frequently referred to in ads and other campaign materials, most recently for SLD’s efforts. Bagatelos Law Firm and Fadem & Associates are long-used law firms now engaged by MEH.
For their lawsuits, SLD and MEH are using the same law firm as PTCP, Latham & Watkins. SLD and MEH have also been running similar ads in the Independent calling for the replacement of the current city council with one that is more compliant with Seppala and King’s demands to move the housing.
The political machine is complemented by artful FPPC timeline manipulation and a complex way to pay vendors that would rival any money-laundering operation.
It appears certain agents more or less extend credit to the groups, pay sub-vendors, then collect their payments through contributions made after the date of the election. This could be why the same vendors show up on the FPPC reports.
One example is the aforementioned Stearns Consulting and Rough House Productions, which have acted as agents for every Seppala / King group spawned since 2018. It’s a lucrative deal for the agents and has probably brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for them over the years.
Under state law, contributors to a political committee of $50,000 or more are considered “top contributors,” and their names must be disclosed on campaign advertising. So, to avoid contributors of large sums of money being exposed, agents such as Stearns and Rough House are paid after the fact.
When major donors have to contribute before an election, the contributions are carefully distributed to not exceed the $50,000.
Contributions to PTCP by Joan Seppala, her relatives, and King before elections were kept to $49,900 or lower. Similarly, for CFALCP, Joan and Lynn Seppala, King, and Jane Woodward (reported to be a relative of Joan Seppala) each kept their contributions to $49,000 or lower.
Even smaller donations by Seppala and King are typically avoided in the early stages to hide the extent of their involvement.
Additionally, major contributions are typically timed to take advantage of FPPC reporting timelines, so that the full extent of Seppala and King’s involvement in each committee is concealed until after the relevant election.
For example, Lynn Seppala and Jean King made contributions to the FOL Committee 2018 totaling over $100,000 per person that were not publicly posted until Jan. 30, 2019, after the relevant November 2018 election.
Another instance of this time-shift is Lynn Seppala’s contributions to PTCP of $267,000 on March 27, 2020, and another $27,000 on April 28, 2020, both well after the Measure P referendum was on the March 3, 2020, ballot. Neither contribution was made public until the July 22, 2020 filing, more than four months after the election.
Council-packing, disinformation and flat-out dishonesty are topics for another day – a day very soon.
This cabal has caused irreparable harm to stakeholders and potential beneficiaries.
Residents have said loud and clear in a referendum brought forth by this group that they want the city-approved downtown plan, but are still waiting. Ongoing litigation has prevented Eden Housing from starting construction and, in 2021, forced the organization to return a $68 million award of low-income housing tax credits from the state.
And let’s not forget the people who will not benefit from affordable housing that should be under construction now, if not for the stalling tactics of a small group of people who want their way and don’t care who gets hurt.
Seppala and King were asked via email to comment on why so many groups made up of the same people with what seems to be the same goal were created, and why the largest contributions to those groups were consistently made after the pertinent election.
King responded, "All of our campaign finance filings are public information. We care deeply about the future of Livermore, and are working to preserve our city's unique charm."
Seppala opened the email twice but ignored the request.
Someone hijacked Take Back Livermore’s URL before the group could claim it. Now when you visit TakeBackLivermore.com, you get this message: “Joan Seppala, please stop trying to buy our elections. - Citizens of Livermore”
Let’s hope she takes the hint.
The "Around the Valley" column is written by Gina Channell Wilcox, who has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group’s East Bay division since 2006.