John McCann is accused by a Democratic activist of getting illegal campaign donations and misreporting them. Photo by Chris Stone

Chula Vista mayoral candidate John McCann broke city and state campaign finance laws after hiring a private investigator to monitor his rival, according to a complaint filed Monday.

Jose Cerda letter to Chula Vista and FPPC (PDF)

Jose F. Cerda, a former president of the Chula Vista Democratic Club, makes several allegations in a “sworn complaint” to the City Clerk’s Office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

The claims grew out of a McCann press conference in which the Chula Vista councilman, a Republican, accused Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar of making his home at the San Diego apartment of his girlfriend, Rep. Sara Jacobs.

Campa-Najjar has denied accusations of not being a Chula Vista resident. Now McCann is being targeted.

According to a 1,200-word letter to City Clerk Kerry K. Bigelow and CC’d to FPPC Director of Enforcement Angela Brereton, Cerda seeks investigations of the monetary value of work by former FBI agent Lawrence J. Hamilton in having the Jacobs residence staked out.

At a Sept. 27 press conference, the letter says, Hamilton indicated that “[o]ver the course of 32 days … he compiled more than 70 videos and photos of Campa-Najjar living with his girlfriend Sara Jacobs at her condominium in San Diego.”

The letter quotes a Union-Tribune story that “Hamilton said he or his associates kept watch every night since August both at Jacobs’ home and Campa-Najjar’s residence in Chula Vista.”

Cerda, a local real-estate agent, says McCann’s wife, Myllissa McCann, reported that the campaign “paid Hamilton a mere $1,000 for conducting this ‘opposition research.’ And, on his pre-election campaign report, filed on September 29, 2022, McCann reported a $1,000 disbursement to ‘Lawrence Hamilton Special Investigative [sic] Unit’ for that amount.”

But Cerda notes that the Chula Vista Municipal Code limits the sources and amount of funds that a candidate for city office may accept — $350 per election.

“The facts indicate that [Hamilton’s company] likely made, and McCann and his committee accepted, an illegal and excessive in-kind contribution in the form of deeply discounted personal services,” the letter says.

“Given the time-intensive nature of his work, and Mr. Hamilton’s credentials, the fair market value of SIU’s services had to exceed $1,000.”

Cerda says the facts “compel the conclusion” that Hamilton’s Special Investigation Unit made a prohibited contribution to McCann, and that McCann and his committee accepted such a prohibited contribution.

“Moreover, to the extent that the fair market value of SIU’s services exceeded $1,360 – and they most certainly did – SIU made, and McCann accepted, an excessive in-kind contribution,” the letter said.

La Prensa articles in May 2021 prompted several complaints to FPPC. (PDF)

In addition, the letter says, McCann violated the state’s Political Reform Act by failing to fully disclose his campaign’s sources of financial support.

“I understand that, by filing a sworn complaint under penalty of perjury, I may be subject to criminal prosecution if the complaint is false,” Cerda wrote in the letter dated Monday.

McCann, Hamilton and Campa-Najjar didn’t respond to requests for comment.

City Clerk Bigelow said the complaint, which her office received Monday afternoon, will be forwarded to special outside counsel within five working days of receipt.

“The enforcement authority has 30 calendar days from its receipt … to determine if probable cause exists,” she told Times of San Diego.

If probable cause is determined to exist, any penalties or other resolution would be determined by different special outside counsel or by the county district attorney, she said, depending on whether the initial enforcement authority determined the violation was a negligent violation or a knowing or willful violation.

McCann is the subject of at least five 2021 complaints to the FPPC, says agency spokesman Jay Wierenga, who confirms that any violation of the Political Reform Act can result in a penalty of up to $5,000 per violation.

Articles in La Prensa San Diego sparked some of the probes. One began: “John McCann, a longtime Chula Vista councilman, accepted over $40,000 in unpaid campaign literature from two entities who went unpaid for more than a year after the election, seemingly in violation of the city’s campaign finance laws.”

The five complaints — combined into one — are under investigation, Wierenga said Wednesday via email, clarifying an earlier report here that they were under review.

Wierenga added that penalties are determined by a number of factors.

“The penalty for each violation is based on factors such as complexity and seriousness of the case, the harm to the public, the cooperation of those involved, whether the violation was deliberate, negligent or inadvertent, and penalties issued in previous cases that are similar in nature,” he said. “So penalties can range from a Warning Letter up to $5,000 per.”

On Monday, Campa-Najjar mocked McCann on Facebook for sending mail to Campa-Najjar’s Chula Vista home address.

Updated at 10:38 a.m. Oct. 5, 2022