Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said his community will heal together.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus became the city’s face in reaction to the April 2019 Chabad of Poway shootings. Photo by Chris Stone

Nearly 30 years ago, RCA Records dropped country artist Steve Vaus after several radio stations refused to air his song “We Must Take America Back.”

“Radio programmers said they didn’t think their listeners wanted to hear somebody harping about all these causes in such a preachy manner,” Jack Weston, general manager of RCA in Nashville, told the Los Angeles Times. “Fact is, the record just didn’t sell.”

In 2009, a revised version was posted on YouTube, logging 216,000 views. Also in 2009: Vaus began singing a political tune in Poway — leading the successful effort to recall Councilwoman Betty Rexford.

Now the boot is on the other foot. Vaus — the 69-year-old mayor often seen in a cowboy hat — is himself a recall target.

Lead proponent of the signature drive recently OK’d by county officials is Christopher “Chris” Olps, a 38-year-old systems engineer for SAIC.

The recall petition accuses Vaus, an office-holder since 2012, of violating the state’s Political Reform Act by not filing certain paperwork. And it revives attacks on his longtime Carols by Candlelight annual fundraising concerts.

“It has never been a registered charity with the California Attorney General’s Office as required by law,” the petition says. “He has also never disclosed it on any statement of economic interest during his time in office.”

Olps, joined by more than two dozen other proponents as Powegians Supporting the Recall of Mayor Vaus, also take umbrage over his alleged ties to business interests and says developers “line his campaign pockets.”

“Mayor Vaus has eroded the unique qualities that make Poway great,” the petition says. “From the abandoned Outpost hole, to 4-story buildings on Poway Road, he is erasing our country feel, and will leave us with nothing but an overdeveloped city.”

Proponents of recall drive against Poway Mayor Steve Vaus.

The Grammy-award winning musician who raised his profile after the Chabad of Poway shootings answers his critics in the petition, which must collect 6,651 verified signatures by Feb. 17, 2022.

“This phony recall scheme is a political stunt by Chris Olps, a five-time losing City Council candidate,” Vaus writes. “It could cost taxpayers (you!) close to $1 million for a special election right before the regular mayoral election. And it’s based on lies.”

(In fact, Olps ran for office three times — in 2014, 2016 and 2020. But he twice sought a council appointment. And Poway city spokeswoman Rene Carmichael says a stand-alone special election is expected to cost $500,000 to $900,000.)

Olps, a 30-year Powegian, says that the City Council would have time to set the recall election for the June 2022 state primary, reducing the costs to about the same as that of the Rexford recall — $35,000.

Carmichael told Times of San Diego: “The Registrar of Voters has given us examples of costs associated with doing a recall election concurrently with the June 2022 primary election” but nothing definitive.

In any case, Vaus hasn’t said whether he’ll stand for re-election in 2022.

But if the issue makes the ballot, it’ll be paired — like the recent Gavin Newsom recall — with a question of who should replace Vaus as mayor of the inland North Council city of 49,000.

Chris Olps voting history in San Diego County. (PDF)

Olps says he’d be on the ballot.

“I told everybody: [In] previous recalls you had people be wishy-washy if … they’ll run,” he said after announcing the drive Wednesday. “[If] I’m going to stand in front of a recall and say: ‘He’s not doing a good job,’ I better be able to stand there and say I could do a better job.”

Vaus, who ran a close but losing race for county supervisor last year, on Wednesday wouldn’t answer questions about specific accusations, including those involving his Christmastime fundraisers for Rady Children’s Hospital.

“I have no comment other than the … response I filed with the Poway City Clerk,” he said via email.

In 2020, the star-studded Carols by Candlelight concerts in Escondido raised $38,200, according to a state attorney general’s report. In 2019, the total was a record $61,000, said a KUSI report,‘ which added: “In the last five years alone, Carols has raised more than $270,000 for Rady Children’s Hospital.”

With a replica check signed by Steve Vaus. Rady Children’s Hospital accepted a $50,000 donation in 2017.

Vaus told “Good Morning San Diego” in February 2020: “I started this because my little sister … spent her one Christmas on earth in a children’s hospital.”

A Rady spokesman declined to say how much the Vaus concerts have raised for the Kearny Mesa hospital.

“While we appreciate your request for specific donation amounts, it is the policy of Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation not to disclose donor information without the donor’s written consent,” said Ben Metcalf, Rady communications project manager.

But Metcalf noted Rady’s third-party fundraising policy, which says in part: “A donation solicited on behalf of Rady … is fully tax-deductible only when it is made directly and entirely to Rady Children’s Hospital, as it is the only agents who can verify that such a gift was made, and the nature of the gift, to the IRS. Donors wishing to receive a tax receipt should provide their donation via check or online directly to Rady Children’s.”

In the case of Carols by Candlelight, however, concert-goer tax write-offs have been uncertain.

In November 2018, James Pratel emailed Vaus:

“Today I donated to [Carols] by Candlelight for the military. I noticed that the money went to Steve Vaus Productions. I didn’t get a tax deductible receipt from [Carols] by Candlelight. For tax purposes, would you please provide the (tax-deductible) receipt?”

Vaus replied: “I apologize for any confusion that led you to believe gift tickets are a deductible donation. They are not and there is nothing on our website that indicates otherwise. I have issued you a refund.”

Carols for Candlelight — created in 1990 by Vaus and The Little River Band’s Wayne Nelson — is not a registered charity in the state database, but has relied on a succession of nonprofits as a go-between.

The latest is the San Diego County Prosperity Foundation, a one-employee 501(c)(3) nonprofit run out of the Rancho Penasquitos home of president Thomas “T.J.” Zane, a Poway school board member and former executive director of the Republican Party of San Diego County.

State report on San Diego County Prosperity Foundation (PDF)

Zane says his foundation has served as a “fiscal sponsor” of Carols by Candlelight since 2019.

“SDCPF provides fiduciary oversight and financial management of all SDCPF contributions received/expenditures made in connection with CBC, and other administrative services (e.g., sending acknowledgement/Thank You letters to donors, event promotion, etc.) to help build the capacity of the charity concert, with all net proceeds written to the Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation,” he said Thursday via email.

In 2020, the Prosperity Foundation listed $1,200 in officer/director compensation and $7,738 in fundraising expenses. Other than that, it cut only two checks — $385 for membership in the North San Diego Business Chamber and $38,200 to Rady.

A KPBS investigation into attack mailers found no evidence that Vaus was pocketing profits from the Christmas concerts.

“In order for donations to the event to be tax deductible, Vaus partnered with a 501(c)3 nonprofit that acts as a ‘fiscal agent,'” said KPBS. “Such arrangements are common, according to the National Council of Nonprofits.”

The 2021 concert ticket page notes: “Tickets are NOT deductible as charitable contributions.”

In 2012, the CBC site promoted special guests Jose Feliciano and Billy Ray Cyrus. Concert-goers were told to write checks payable to Carols by Candlelight. Soon the website invited donors, sponsors and noted raffles and live and silent auctions.

“Products, services or monetary donations … should be sent to Carols by Candlelight in care of: Mona Durney, auction coordinator” at an Escondido address. On LinkedIn, Durney lists herself as associate producer between 2012 and 2018.

Durney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

But since 2009, a Poway activist named Christine “Chris” Cruse has done little but comment on Vaus, Carols by Candlelight and other city issues.

In December 2018, she sent a 1,600-word complaint about Vaus to the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s election watchdog.

“The gist of my complaint is that Vaus asked people, including me, to be an angel and donate to cover the costs of putting on his show, or to buy tickets for him to give away,” she said via Facebook chat.

“I also found that Vaus was getting money for tickets from a JPA that Poway belonged to. He got tens of thousands of dollars from corporate sponsors, some of whom had business before the city. And Vaus never would reveal how much he paid himself to put on the show — it was an income generator for him.”

Twelve days later, the FPPC sent Cruse a rejection letter.

“Based on a review of the complaint and additional documentation provided, the Enforcement Division found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act, and will not pursue an enforcement action in this matter,” wrote Galena West, chief of the FPPC Enforcement Division.

“Please note that payments behested by an elected official for charitable purposes are not considered gifts to the official, but are instead reported as ‘behested payments’ on FPPC Form 803.”

Said Cruse: “For some reason, the FPPC shut the case once Vaus filed some [state form] 803s. But he hadn’t filed them before or since. And the FPPC doesn’t investigate the misuse of the nonprofit entity.”

That same year, Cruse drafted a complaint to the San Diego County Grand Jury.

Never-sent Chris Cruse complaint to county grand jury, (PDF)

“I want the grand jury to investigate how much money Steve Vaus makes from his Christmas concert and whether or not this is more of an income producing event for Steve Vaus than it is a charity event,” she wrote.

Among other asks, she said: “I would like the grand jury to insist that Vaus clarify on his Carols by Candlelight page exactly which donations are tax deductible and which are not.”

And: “I would also like the grand jury to determine if TJ Zane’s nonprofit is really a political entity and whether or not it is legal for Vaus to claim that TJ Zane’s nonprofit is a fiscal sponsor of ‘Carols by Candlelight.’”

Cruse never sent the grand jury the 2,200-word complaint.

She cited her political Facebook group, South and North Poway Vote.

“I want to keep some distance between myself as moderator of that group and running or helping to run a recall,” she said. “However, I have told Chris Olps that I would support the recall once it started.”

She aired her gripes publicly in a September 2018 blog post titled “Is it a Charity or a Scam?” She wrote: “I do not recommend donating to Carols by Candlelight until they comply with the nonprofit and charity fundraising reporting laws.”

Because of expectations that she circulate petitions, Cruse didn’t sign on as a recall proponent.

“I currently cannot ‘carry the load’ as a proponent due to mostly COVID issues,” said Cruse, 72. “My husband is high risk, and although we are triple vaccinated, I err on the side of caution and don’t show up for many in-person meetings.”

In December 2019, Brian Brady stung Vaus on the conservative blog San Diego Rostra.

“Cruse may be way off base,” said Brady, once a member of the county GOP Central Committee. “She may be an angry political opponent to Vaus who is throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks. But Cruse has been making these allegations, along with supporting documentation, for close to 10 years. To the best of my knowledge, Vaus has never addressed nor refuted them. This might be a good time for Vaus to set the record straight.”

Recall leader Olps says he expects Vaus to frame the recall as a “Democrat vs. Republican thing, which is kind of weird when … Republicans are (among) the proponents.”

Olps has been registered “No Party Preference” since April 2019, according to county records. But for six years before that, he was a registered Republican — after being “Decline to State” since June 2002.

In the June 2020 presidential primary, Olps requested a Democratic ballot, records show. (Since 2002, he’s voted in 10 of the 25 elections for which he’s been eligible — including every one since November 2016.)

Olps also was hit-and-miss on efforts to make a recall drive possible.

He tried to buy a mandatory legal notice in The San Diego Union-Tribune and sister weekly Poway News Chieftain, but was rebuffed.

“The ad was not rejected outright,” said U-T publisher Jeff Light. “Our legal group reviewed the submission and provided a version back to the client that would meet our advertising standards.”

The U-T’s Cristina Gaza wrote Olps in September about the $85.88 ad: “After checking legal codes, we are unable to publish names and addresses.”

The ad eventually ran online in the Escondido Times-Advocate.

Olps is ramping up a social media strategy, including a website — recallvaus.com — created Aug. 26. The site includes an accusation of criminal behavior.

“Rather than run on a typical ‘we disagree’ platform, this recall is based on evidence and investigations showing illegal actions,” the site says. “There are criminal complaints as a result of these actions.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Olps said criminal complaints started in 2020, when Vaus was running against Joel Anderson for Distict 5 county supervisor.

“From what I understand, because I’m not one of the named people in the case, …. they had said that would be moving forward …. with papers being served on Vaus in the near future,” Olps said. “They’re using similar grounds for their case.”

Olps concedes that his recall effort faces relatively high odds.

“Vaus has a well-polished machine,” he said. “He ran for supervisor and has big donors. He has a lot of development money behind him. He’s got PACs behind him. We’re just a group of concerned citizens.”

Olps has no beef with charity efforts or running a business, but said: “If you’re doing both, that should be the declaration: ‘I’ve earned this much and I was able to donate this much.’ [Vaus] can’t seem to separate that.”

He adds: “It’s that integrity piece that I think is missing. And I’m hoping that we have enough of a momentum and enough people behind it. There’s a lot wrong and a lot that could be better if we had just a little bit more of a sympathetic ear on council, where people listened.”

For now, he’s hoping to catch the ear of Poway voters. The petition drive will be an all-volunteer operation “unless we have some outrageous amount of funding.”

“We’re just a group of concerned citizens and parents — people who have day jobs,” Olps said. “We’re not out there sitting on the corner or in front of Walmart 24/7 collecting signatures.”

Social media is slow out of the gate, though.

As of 7 p.m. Friday, the recall’s Twitter account had three followers. Four people liked the Facebook page.

Story updated at 10:35 a.m. Oct. 30, 2021