When the state Fair Political Practice Commission opened its probe into Palo Alto Councilwoman's Liz Kniss alleged campaign violations in March 2017, there was little indication that two years later, the agency's Enforcement Division would still be working on the case.
As the investigation has passed the two-year mark this week, there are few signs that the end is approaching. The case is not on the agency's March 21 agenda, which means it will be at least another month and a half before the FPPC can issue a resolution. And the agency has been tight-lipped about the case, citing its policy of not commenting on open cases.
Even so, the sheer length of time it's taking the FPPC to investigate Kniss suggests that the agency believes that her case is more complex than the 77 percent of its cases that qualify for a "streamlining program" and that usually get resolved within two or three months. These, according to FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga, tend to be "minor, technical, lower level violations that can be cleared up rather quickly."
In 2017, the agency resolved about two-thirds of its cases within 180 days, with some taking just a few months, Wierenga said. Between 75 and 85 percent of the cases were completed within a year. The February 2017 investigation against Councilman Greg Tanaka for reporting violations was resolved within seven months and resulted in a $733 fine. The complaint against Councilman (now Vice Mayor) Adrian Fine, who failed to include his campaign's FPPC number on an October 2017 mailer, was closed within two weeks (the FPPC issued a warning but did not impose a fine in this case).
The reasons for why some cases take much longer vary greatly, Wierenga told the Weekly. Each case, he said, has its "specific facts, allegations, evidence (and) personalities and therefore one cannot simply put a cookie-cutter, time's-up-type of time frame on things."
"Witnesses change testimony, or the witness testimony is contradictory, so then obviously more investigation is needed to determine the accuracy of any and all the testimony, with facts and evidence needed," Wierenga said in a February email, referring to the agency's general process and not Kniss' specific case. "Collecting the facts and evidence can also be a time-consuming endeavor. Again, some of this can be seen in terms of whether people are cooperative or less than cooperative. Some cases also involve a great deal of complexity to figure out if certain votes or decisions led to certain outcomes, and that may include looking at numerous votes or decisions previous that lead up to one in particular."
The Kniss investigation, which was prompted by a citizen complaint, centers on her failure to report in a timely manner the contributions she had received from developers during her 2016 re-election campaign. At issue is the 31 contributions, totaling $19,340, that she received before the Nov. 8, 2016 election but that her campaign did not report until Jan. 11. The contributions, many of which came from local developers, all arrived in the final days of a campaign that previously pledged not to accept developers' contributions.
Kniss said that to her knowledge, these factors had not been at play in her investigation. There have been no witnesses in this case except her attorney, who was handling the campaign, and her treasurer, Tom Collins, who was charged with reporting the checks but who was waylaid by a knee surgery in the final days of the 2016 campaign — a circumstance that he said kept him from opening the envelopes, depositing the checks and reporting the contributions to the FPPC.
Kniss told the Weekly that she has not spoken to the FPPC in well over a year and has not heard from the agency about the investigation since she received its March 10, 2017, letter notifying her of the investigation. She said she had hired an attorney to work with the FPPC to resolve the complaint. The attorney worked with Collins to respond to the FPPC, she said.
"I don't think I've talked to my attorney for more than a year," Kniss said (she declined to name her attorney). "I don't know what you'd do about something when you have absolutely no control over it whatsoever. I'm going to presume my attorney is doing his job."
Kniss said the only time she contacted the FPPC was before the investigation when she called the agency's Legal Division for advice. At that time, she said, her campaign was advised that because the envelopes containing the checks were not opened until well after the election, they did not have to be reported until the January campaign statement (even if the developers made their contributions well before the election, as several told the Weekly they had).
The late donations included several checks greater than $1,000, including ones from Thoits Brothers, Hatco Associates LLC, Palo Alto Improvement Company and Joseph Martignetti Jr. All of these were sent in before Election Day and, as such, should have been reported in a special Form 497 filing within 24 hours, but they were not. The campaign also received a $2,500 contribution from the California Association of Realtors, which was not reported until Jan. 11. The realtor association's own filing, however, shows that it made the contribution on Oct. 18, well before the election.
In seeking legal advice, Kniss' treasurer Collins told the FPPC in an email that the $2,500 contribution "was not shown on a Form 497 because it was not opened, posted or deposited until November 18th well after the election date of November 8th." The FPPC's legal staff (which functions separately from the agency's Enforcement Division) offered Collins what appeared to be reassuring advice: because he didn't open the envelope until Nov. 18, the $2,500 was not considered "received" until that date and, as such, did not have to be reported in a Form 497 within 24 hours of the envelope's arrival in his mailbox.
Though no one disputes that the contributions from developers were reported well after the election, Kniss maintained that her intent was never to conceal these contributions and characterized the complaint against her as "innuendos and false accusations." Rather, it was nothing more than a health emergency that kept her treasurer from meeting the regular reporting deadline.
She did not dispute that her campaign changed its policy about accepting developers' donations, but argued that this was due to changing circumstances. Two of her competitors in the 2016 election, Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller collectively received about $100,000 in donations from five families, some of whom also later supported the 2018 campaigns of Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth (the major contributors include Tench and Simone Coxe; Gabrielle and Thomas Layton; Helyn MacLean; G. Leonard and Mary Ann Baker; and Michael and Paula Rantz).
Kniss said the investigation, despite its length, has neither been a distraction nor has it dented her political clout. In January 2018, her council colleagues voted to appoint her mayor (her third such honor). The only council member who mentioned the FPPC probe was Councilman Tom DuBois, who suggested that the council should reconsider its vote if the FPPC completes its investigation and finds violations (this became a moot point after the year ended with no FPPC findings).
"I do think we owe it to the community and to the institution of the Palo Alto City Council to maintain the level of standards the community demands," DuBois said at the Jan. 8, 2018 meeting.
Kniss, for her part, pushed back against any suggestion that her policy of accepting checks from developers — after her campaign initially said it would not do so — was in any way inconsistent with these standards. Any politician who can't change his mind, she told the Weekly, is not worth his or her salt.
"I changed my mind about taking those larger checks than I would have when I realized that I have stiff competition from five families that were donating in the five and six figures," Kniss told the Weekly. "When you're running for office, you want to win. You certainly don't want to lose because you didn't have enough money."