By Janene Scully, Noozhawk North County Editor
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has launched an investigation into a Solvang city councilman’s potential violations of state rules requiring disclosure of loans and other financial information.
On Jan. 9, days after Noozhawk first reported on a small-claims court case involving Councilman Chris Djernaes as a defendant, the commission alerted him about an inquiry.
“This letter is to notify you that the Enforcement Division of the Fair Political Practices Commission has commenced a commission-initiated investigation regarding your potential violations of the Statement of Economic Interests disclosure provisions of the Political Reform Act,” Galena West, chief of the FPPC Enforcement Division, wrote in the letter.
“At this time, we have not made any determination about the possible violations. We are simply providing you with this information as a courtesy and may be contacting you to discuss the matter.”
The letter added that Djernaes could submit comments about the matter to Chloe Hackert at email@example.com.
Djernaes did not respond to Noozhawk’s request for comment about the FPPC notification.
The Fair Political Practices Commission regulates and enforces state campaign finance reporting for candidates and committees, along with lobbying activity and conflict of interest issues for public officials.
In addition to receiving complaints, the FPPC Enforcement Division opens inquiries proactively when it learns of potential violations, the agency’s website says, noting that news media reports or law enforcement referrals can trigger investigations.
Noozhawk reported days earlier about a small-claims case filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court by Meghan Rose McCarthy.
On Nov. 4, McCarthy, who now lives in Yuba City, filed the small-claims court case against Djernaes, a former friend.
McCarthy claimed Djernaes still owed her at least $10,000. Although he borrowed more than that amount, $10,000 is the cap for for small-claims court cases.
“The defendant borrowed money to pay back his debt from his city council campaign,” states the legal paperwork discovered by Noozhawk in Superior Court files. “He was put on a payment plan and the defendant stopped making payments.”
After meeting with a mediator, Djernaes agreed to make monthly payments and a balloon payment at the end of a year.
The loan from McCarthy was not disclosed on his Statement of Economic Interests, or Form 700, filed as part of his 2018 campaign and upon taking office.
An FPPC spokesman said he could not estimate when an investigation might be completed. On average, a case takes 105 days with the span depending upon a number of factors, according to Jay Wierenga, FPPC communications director.
Violations of the Political Reform Act can lead to administrative fines of up to $5,000 for each, according to the agency’s website.
In other cases, the commission may issue a warning letter confirming a violation when the resolution does not include a fine.
Cases with insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution can be closed with an advisory letter or without further action, according to FPPC.