Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and Nathan Fletcher holding the "Veteran of the Year" award. Photo from Nathan_Fletcher/Instagram
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and Nathan Fletcher holding the Veteran of the Year Award. Photo via Nathan Fletcher/Instagram

Saluting your significant other’s accomplishments is nothing new, but when Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez opted to give her boyfriend a Veteran of the Year Award it raised eyebrows.

The annual honor, in which state Assembly members recognize veterans from their districts, was recently given to Nathan Fletcher, who has been dating Gonzalez for about a year.

Fletcher, who served in the Marines, is a former Assembly member best known for authoring Chelsea’s Law, which increases penalties and oversight of sex offenders. Fletcher also ran for San Diego mayor in 2012 and in a special election in 2013 but lost.

In an Instagram post announcing the award from Gonzalez, Fletcher wrote: “Honored to be chosen as Veteran of the Year by my Assemblywoman :).”

Evan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Gonzalez, said Fletcher was given the award because he is a combat veteran who lives in the 80th Assembly District.

“He is also the founder and director of a veterans organization that is very active on PTS issues and raises awareness on issues critical to veterans,” McLaughlin said via email. “He does all of this as a volunteer. He was even tapped by President Obama this year for his expertise on veteran issues and briefed the president on the personal costs of war in leading to the president’s decision on the Iran deal.

“As such, there was no veteran in the district more visible this year. Can you think of one?”

Asked whether it could be a conflict of interest to award her significant other, McLaughlin told Times of San Diego: “It is one of hundreds of recognitions given by the Assemblywoman each year. She has seen members award this and other awards to wives, mothers and fathers (especially Woman of the Year) countless times and has never remotely thought that any member who chose to honor a loved one as a conflict of interest.”

Fletcher also disagreed that the award could be a conflict, simply stating via email: “Conflict of interest is a legal term that is wholly inappropriate to this situation” and listing three reasons why he was given the award, “1. Live in district. 2. Combat veteran. 3. Founded a vets nonprofit that fights daily for vets. Recently unveiled national campaign aimed at attacking epidemic of veteran suicide.”

But other veterans disagree.

Kayla Carnevale, who lives in the 80th Assembly District and served in the Marines, acknowledged that “Fletcher does good work in the veterans community” but another veteran should have been chosen for the award.

“He may deserve the award, but there is no question that Gonzalez should have stood down when it came to voting on, or nominating, her own boyfriend,” Carnevale said. “I can personally name two veterans off the top of my head that deserve that award, as well, or more. It’s just unfortunate that they are not dating a politician.”

Raymundo Pacello Jr. of Chula Vista served in the U.S. Navy for two years and is a retired trial attorney. He said the move is inconsiderate of other veterans.

“She has the unilateral power to give an award and she gives it to her lover, who is also a political figure?” Pacello said. “I think it’s unethical.”

When asked how Gonzalez would respond to those who may see the award being given to Fletcher as a conflict of interest, McLaughlin replied, “Outside of you and a snarky Republican Party staffer, no one has suggested this is a conflict of interest. You don’t have to respond to irrelevant partisan trollers.”

The “Veteran of the Year” award is one of a handful of awards each Assembly member gives annually. Other San Diego County veterans given the award this year include Darcy and Al Pavich, recognized by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, and Alissa Speziale, who will be recognized by Assemblyman Brian Maienschein.

Darcy Pavich, who served in the U.S. Navy for seven years, is director of the annual Stand Down in San Diego, while Al Pavich, who served in the Navy for 30 years, led in building the Veterans Village of San Diego. Speziale was a Navy doctor for 10 years before joining Sharp Healthcare.

McLaughlin said no costs were accrued in giving Fletcher the award, and Fletcher paid his own way to Sacramento to accept the award.

According to news reports, Fletcher filed for divorce from Mindy, his wife since 2003, in January 2015.