Following FPPC complaint, planning commissioner investigated and fined for omitting income from architecture firm on Statements of Economic Interest
By Allison Jarrell
As a result of an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, Planning Commission Chairman Rob Williams has been fined $400 for failing to report his investment in and income from his company, Studio 6 Architects, on his Statements of Economic Interest, according to an FPPC letter released by Williams.
Williams, who lives in San Juan and also serves on the city’s Design Review Committee, is a principal architect and co-owner of Studio 6 Architects in San Clemente. According to the Feb. 26 letter from the FPPC Enforcement Division’s chief—which Williams released to The Capistrano Dispatch—the investigation found that Williams violated the Political Reform Act by failing to report “Studio 6 Architects and the income it received” on his Statements of Economic Interest (Form 700) since his appointment to the Planning Commission in 2009.
The FPPC’s investigation of Williams originally stemmed from a complaint filed in January alleging he had conflicts of interest in discussing the Historic Town Center Master Plan as a Planning Commissioner and member of an ad hoc committee. The FPPC chose not to investigate that complaint as Williams had been cleared by the commission’s legal division of the allegations that were made. The commission instead opened a different investigation and found that Williams had omitted income on his Form 700.
In order to provide transparency and accountability, all elected and appointed officials and public employees who are involved with government decisions are required to file a Form 700 to report their investments, business positions and sources of income. According to the FPPC, the purpose of the document is twofold: to provide “necessary information to the public about an official’s personal financial interests to ensure that officials are making decisions in the best interest of the public and not enhancing their personal finances,” and to serve as a “reminder to the public official of potential conflicts of interest so the official can abstain from making or participating in governmental decisions that are deemed conflicts of interest.”
Williams could have faced a fine up to $5,000 for the violation; however, the letter states his violation qualified for a “streamlined program” with an offer to settle for $400. Williams said he paid the fine and has amended his Form 700.
While the FPPC’s letter to Williams states that the “Enforcement Division has completed its investigation,” it’s not exactly case closed yet. Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, said while the FPPC cannot comment on this specific case, in general, a case is technically open until the full commission votes on and approves the fine/penalty/agreement at its monthly hearing. Williams’ case has not yet been publicly agendized for the commission’s April 21 meeting; each month the agenda is posted 10 days prior to the hearing.
Williams said in an interview that the omission of his income from Studio 6 Architects was due to his “misunderstanding of the form.” He said he didn’t report the income on his Form 700 because he didn’t realize he had to.
“I didn’t think I had to tell someone I own a company outside the city limits,” he said.
While Studio 6 is based in San Clemente, the firm is active in San Juan Capistrano and has completed work recently on the Egan House downtown, as well as the clock tower building along Camino Capistrano.
Complaint denied, investigation opened
The FPPC’s investigation of Williams stemmed from a complaint filed in January by Tom Ostensen, who serves on the San Juan Capistrano Open Space Foundation’s board of directors and as president of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. While Ostensen’s complaint was ultimately rejected by the FPPC, it triggered the investigation which found Williams was in violation of omitting his income.
In the 60-page initial complaint, Ostensen detailed allegations that Williams has disqualifying conflicts of interest that he failed to disclose and that he failed to recuse himself from government discussions and decisions regarding the Historic Town Center Master Plan, properties owned by San Juan residents Bill Griffith and Steve Oedekerk—both of whom have hotels in planning on their land, and Griffith’s Rivendell Land Company.
On June 9, Williams was appointed by the Planning Commission to serve on an ad hoc committee that is tasked with studying the Historical Town Center Master Plan and the General Plan and recommending actions to the City Council to reconcile the documents and affirm the city’s vision for the town center area. Such decisions will impact the design and plans for Oedekerk’s hotel, situated along Camino Capistrano between the Egan House and the Esslinger Building (both owned by Griffith).
Ostensen argued that the appointment was a conflict of interest for Williams, who has worked as an architect on two buildings that are now owned by Rivendell Land Company—the clock tower building and the Egan House. Williams was subcontracted by Dan Friess, consultant for Rivendell Land Company, for work on both buildings. After he completed the design for the clock tower, Rivendell Land Company purchased the building.
Ostensen claimed that this “financial interest” in Griffith and his company, combined with Griffith’s expressed interest in buying Oedekerk’s property, “is additional evidence of Mr. Williams’ and Mr. Griffith’s financial stake in government decisions regarding Mr. Oedekerk’s property, because blocking development there could affect the terms of Mr. Griffith’s offer and development of the competing hotel.
“If a policymaker who is employed by a developer is allowed to continue making decisions that benefit that developer and adversely affect a rival, then the state’s Political Reform Act has not only been rendered useless, it’s been blatantly mocked,” Ostensen concluded.
In a March 4 letter to Ostensen, the FPPC’s Enforcement Division said it had rejected the complaint and would not open an investigation based on the complaint because Williams had already “sought advice from the Commission’s Legal Division and was informed that a conflict did not exist.” Williams said he approached the FPPC in December to confirm that he did not have a conflict.
In February, Williams recused himself from discussing Griffith’s Mission Inn project due to his relationship with Dan Friess and a “perceived conflict of interest.” Williams said in an interview that since the FPPC has advised him that there is no conflict of interest, he intends to continue participating in city government discussions and decisions regarding the Historic Town Center Master Plan and the proposed Hotel Capistrano on Oedekerk’s property.
“As Rob Williams is an individual who is directly employed by those with, by their own definition, a competing project, there is clear evidence that they deem our project as competition and would benefit from our project being delayed, hindered, complicated or blocked,” Oedekerk wrote in a March 21 letter.
The latest Planning Commission review of the hotel was set for March 22.
“As there is a conflict of interest in this matter, or at a bare minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest, we ask for the recusal of Rob Williams from any and all commission and committee seats that have an effect on my property and/or our present Hotel Capistrano project submission,” Oedekerk wrote in the letter to City Manager Ben Siegel. “If Rob Williams does not recuse himself and is present and acting as a commissioner in this meeting, I will take this as a message that Rob Williams himself, the city attorney, and the city has made a legal determination that there is no evident appearance of a conflict of interest.”