News

Questions raised over council members' expense-paid travel

 

Two Menlo Park City Council members, Kirsten Keith and Catherine Carlton, have reported receiving contributions from US Asia Innovation Gateway, a Palo Alto-based trade organization that may not be legally authorized to pay for local elected officials' travel.

In April, The Almanac reported that Keith had traveled to Chengdu, China, for a three-day trip, from March 25 to 27, with US Asia Innovation Gateway, as part of a personal vacation. She said she expected to have her travel expenses reimbursed by the US Asia Innovation Gateway.


Kirsten Keith. (Photo courtesy city of Menlo Park.)

Catherine Carlton. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
The event is not without precedent. Between Nov. 12 and 21, 2016, Carlton had also traveled with the same organization, and reported receiving $8,500 in contributions from US Asia Innovation Gateway on a mandatory "statement of economic interests" form.

Generally, according to the state's Fair Political Practices Act, elected officials are not permitted to accept gifts larger than $470. Some exceptions exist if the travel is funded by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, or a foreign government, for specific travel purposes, such as public speaking or public business.

However, US Asia Innovation Gateway is not a 501(c)(3), according to federal records – it is a 501 (c)(6), a different legal classification designated for trade organizations.

Ethics violations?

Whether accepting these trips constitutes a violation of the state's political ethics law for these council members is a complicated question.

Typically, it comes down to the purpose of the trip and the relationship between the official and the entity paying for the travel, said Jay Wierenga, communications director of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

"Public officials do often travel, to give speeches, to attend conferences, things that generally fall under the Political, Legislative or Governmental purposes. Sometimes that travel does not have to be reported, other times it does but is not subject to the gift limits," he explained in an email to The Almanac.

"We aren't going to say something is or isn't a violation, or is permissible or isn't, as that would obviously be making an accusation or pre-judging something that may in fact not be the case when the specifics are known," he wrote.

Wierenga pointed to a July 2015 opinion letter by the FPPC, in which Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin asked for advice about whether it was permissible to accept an all-expense-paid economic development trip to China. At the time, the trip was coordinated by US Asia Innovation Gateway, but the organization provided no funding for the trip. Instead, it was funded by a 501(c)(3) organization called US-China Innovation.

FPPC legal counsel said in a letter that it was permissible for Atkin to go, but the payments would still be reportable and could form the basis of a conflict of interest. Any expenses other than travel, lodging and subsistence were subject to the maximum gift limit, the letter noted.

Ann Ravel, former FPPC chair, wrote in an email to The Almanac, that "council members may accept a gift of travel from a 501(c)(4) – a category of organization that is permitted to lobby – or any other entity, but it would be subject to the $470 limit.

But, if they are giving a speech, they can accept travel and lodging for the day before, the day of and the day after the speech is given. This is not a gift and so is not reportable.

"There may be legislative and governmental purposes in the travel. So if the trade organization is affiliated with the foreign government, it is reportable but not subject to the limits," she wrote in an email to The Almanac.

"If there is no government connection and no money coming from a government entity or a domestic governmental agency, the receipt of the travel would be considered in the law to be inappropriate," she wrote.

Travel purposes

Carlton said in an email that the purpose of the trip she went on was "getting to know each other, developing positive international relations, and exchanging general ideas about innovation and business in Silicon Valley."

She said she traveled with the following Bay Area elected officials: Lisa Gautier from East Palo Alto, David Haubert from Dublin, Ruth Atkin from Emeryville, Sue Chan from Fremont, Robert Gottschalk from Millbrae, Mike Kasperzak from Mountain View, Carol Dutra-Vernaci from Union City, Carmen Montano from Milpitas, and Jeff Gee from Redwood City.

She said she believed that the only person who gave a presentation from the group on her trip was the leader and spokesperson, Brian Peck, deputy director for international affairs and business development for Gov. Jerry Brown's California Office of Business and Economic Development.

Keith said that her 2018 trip was her first journey to China, and during the trip, she talked about "what makes Menlo Park a great place to live and work and invited their delegation to visit."

In an interview, she said she purchased the fares herself and expects to be reimbursed by US Asia Innovation Gateway. When asked about the organization she traveled with, she said, "I know Cat went with them as well, and other council members from other cities have gone with them in the past."

"I'll report it, as I said, when we have all the information," she said. "Just like everyone else in the past has done."

Keith traveled with Dublin Mayor David Haubert and Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel.

They were joined by former Mountain View councilman Mike Kasperzak, who was acting as CEO of a group called HIM Holdings. During that trip, a signing ceremony was held with Keith and the two mayors present; the ceremony appeared to signal support for a partnership between HIM Holdings and the Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, which Kasperzak described as an office park that is run as a government agency in China.

The US Asia Innovation Gateway lists on its website Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment company, as one of its main sponsors, along with Colliers International, a real estate services company; Stronkin, an electronics company; Launching Pad, described as a "new Silicon Valley Off-shore Incubator"; and Silicon Valley Global.

Huawei, it was reported June 5 in the New York Times, has a data-sharing partnership with Facebook and has been flagged by American intelligence officials as a national security threat. Facebook planned to "wind down the Huawei deal by the end of the week," the Times reported.

The Almanac was tipped off to the legal questions surrounding the travel reimbursements by George Fisher, a Menlo Park resident, attorney and watchdog, who said,"I got into this because I'm concerned. Why is the Menlo Park council taking so may trips, and what's happening on them?"

"It's that the mayors are taking advantage of these trips, and not paying attention to what the rules are that allow them to do it," Fisher added.

Representatives from the US Asia Innovation Gateway did not respond to requests for comment.

--

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Comments

24 people like this
Posted by Patrick
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 10:51 am

First Carlton was voting on Facebook issues for over a year while owning Facebook stock which is clear conflict of interest. (California Political Reform Act) (Web Link)

Now we learn that "between Nov. 12 and 21, 2016, Carlton had also traveled with the same organization, and reported receiving $8,500 in contributions from US Asia Innovation Gateway on a mandatory "statement of economic interests" form."

That means Carlton went on a free trip to China worth $8500 with this organization just THREE DAYS after being reelected on November 8th, 2016.

Good grief. Menlo Park deserves better.















13 people like this
Posted by Probation?
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 12, 2018 at 11:36 am

If the Menlo Park City Council were an NCAA football team it's fair to say it might be looking at probation for lack of institutional control! This all is getting embarrassing. What the h- is going on?


11 people like this
Posted by She's a lightweight
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 11:54 am

Another upcoming boondoggle for Carlton:

Web Link

"Catherine Carlton
Mayor elect (2014 and 2015) Menlo Park City, Silicon Valley

Catherine Carlton is serving her second term on the Menlo Park City Council, elected as Mayor in 2014 and 2015. Catherine helped found CFLD in North America, and currently serves as the Vice President of Public Affairs.

Catherine worked in the TV and tech industries in the UK. She then lived in Greater China for over ten years, serving as the Founder and Managing Director for Digital Island in the Asia Pacific Australia region, which was the largest data centre company in Asia at that time. She also helped found Equant, BIM and other start-up companies in the region. Catherine sat on the American Chamber of Commerce board, and taught a seminar MBA class at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Catherine then helped found and ran a China consulting business, Search Bank, before she married and moved to Silicon Valley.

Catherine sits on the boards of various government entities and non-profit companies, and is a founding board member of Peninsula Choice Energy, a green electric company serving twenty cities in San Mateo County. She worked with state legislators, authoring bills against human trafficking that were passed into California state law in 2012. California Governor Brown appointed Catherine to the board of a division of the Department of Consumer Affairs in 2012, and re-appointed her in 2016. She also consults and advises start-up companies internationally."


25 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 12, 2018 at 12:28 pm

It is quite evident that Keith and Carlton are only on the MP Council to serve themselves, instead of serving the residents of MP.
Recall?


15 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 12:40 pm

I thought we elected council members to deal with the many issues our city is facing, not to travel around the world -- no matter who is paying -- to "make friends."


15 people like this
Posted by Patrick
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Carlton went on a free trip to China worth $8500 with this organization just THREE DAYS after being reelected on November 8th, 2016. I wonder if she told any Menlo Park voters about the free trip to China prior to November 8th?

@lightweight - do you know who is paying for Catherine Carlton's upcoming trip to Bulgaria? It says she is attending the event as "Menlo Park Mayor elect 2014 and 2015". Does that mean we taxpayers are paying for her trip there?
Or is some other organization paying for her trip? Also was Catherine Carlton Mayor for two years in a row? That doesn't sound right.


10 people like this
Posted by Keith’s China Mess
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 1:08 pm

This is a sad commentary on our city. 8 years is enough and maybe too many. Keith should not run for a third term. We need to get back to the business of doing what’s right for Menlo Park.
I heard Keith’s report to the council about this China trip and it was a very brief word salad of happy talk. No justification, no benefit to Menlo Park.
Should the council and city manager be notified of these trips and include a discussion at a council meeting as to the reason for the trip? Could the council have a process where these trips are approved by the council, by vote?
Mueller. Carlton and Keith have all taken advantage of these gifts from Chinese companies and cities. I believe all were taken advantage of, and actually used as window dressing in for-profit business dealings. This is not why we elected these three to the council. But this is the reason they should not be elected again for a third term.
Who are the candidates running against Ohtaki and Keith? Let’s get behind them and elect dedicated Menlo Park council members who have some solutions for the problems they have created. Traffic, huge population projections, unsafe streets for our kids.
It’s time to clean up City Hall.


6 people like this
Posted by purpose
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 12, 2018 at 1:13 pm

In situations like this, there is no point looking for a solution that will bring people happiness. Some people find true happiness and purpose in criticizing politicians.


4 people like this
Posted by BatteryLow
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 12, 2018 at 2:38 pm

These sound like the most boring and least extravagant of junkets. If they are determined to have violated ethics codes, make them return gifts received and recuse themselves from relevant matters. At this point I have zero concern about either council member.


"8 years is too many... let's get someone dedicated" LOL.


14 people like this
Posted by pay attention
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 12, 2018 at 3:51 pm

Our council members need to pay attention to the myriad issues facing our town, some of which, like the jobs:housing imbalance, they caused. Junkets like these take away from attention to their real job as a councilmember. What on earth can an individual, without a publicly-authorized plan, do at these international meeting that is good for the residents of Menlo Park? I can imagine that these trips feather the professional caps and boost personal egoes, but going to China puts elected officials in murky waters -- especially when there is no approved city purpose.
It is the height of arrogance for these councilmembers to think that wearing an official city pin and presenting oneself as an elected official escapes ethical scrutiny. If the trips were personal, not governmental, then the city title and nametag had no place. Both Keith and Carlton appear to be behaving inappropriately. I am glad Fisher pays attention.


Like this comment
Posted by Conscience
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 12, 2018 at 5:03 pm

Has Mueller traveled on a "sponsored" trip or does he travel for business.


Like this comment
Posted by Maximus
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 12, 2018 at 5:12 pm

@pay_attention asks, "What can an individual do at these meetings that is good for the residents of Menlo Park?"

These trips give Kate Bradshaw something to write about. Are you not entertained?


18 people like this
Posted by Ray Mueller
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jun 12, 2018 at 6:33 pm

I have traveled to China on one “sponsored” trip with ten mayors. Prior to leaving on the trip I had the City Attorney clear the trip with the FPPC and I received a clearance letter. A representative of the US government was with our delegation for part of the trip in China. After the trip I reported out on the trip in an agendized City Council study session that the public was invited to attend. Today on business trips if the trip requires I submit a bio I have a City Attorney approved bio I provide the entity. It does not mention the City of Menlo Park in the bio.

Rich Cline and I recently requested the City Council consider clear guidelines regarding the City Council travel policy.


14 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 12, 2018 at 9:19 pm

Concerned residents, please support Ray Mueller and Rich Cline's efforts to have Council discuss the travel policy, so that clear guidelines can be established. By sending a message to the entire Council, via the city.council@menlopark.org you will go on record requesting a Council discussion. Please join me in writing and if enough people write, it makes it harder for the remaining Council members to ignore the public's sentiment. You can also attend the upcoming Council meeting and urge action. The Columbia Law School Practitioner toolkit ("Fighting Small Town Corruption") Web Link many suggestions as to how residents in small towns can work to obtain accountability, oversight and transparency. I would also like to see Council discuss establishing an ethics code as well. We need a culture of integrity in Menlo Park and rules and regulations to ensure that our public officials and staff are held to high standards, and ways to enforce those rules. The toolkit has many helpful ideas for anyone concerned.


2 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 12, 2018 at 9:20 pm

Oops. Let's try this link to the Toolkit. Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by purpose
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 13, 2018 at 12:48 am

If this travel policy update is being used as a catalyst for an anti-incumbent political campaign, that may not be an appropriate use of staff and council time. The best way to avoid bringing politics into council chambers will be to have the Sister City Committee update the travel policy.

Lynne, your "Fighting Small Town Corruption" link references the City of Bell. This is a city the size of Menlo Park, where officials had the highest salaries in the United States, $100,000 per year for part-time work. The city manager received $1.5 million in salary and benefits. The City of Menlo Park pays their city manager the smallest salary on the Peninsula. The scandal in Menlo Park may be that we enforce a 3rd retirement tier for new hires, but are driving away employees because we're unwilling to pay the market rate.


8 people like this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 13, 2018 at 4:45 am

One problem is missing council meetings.

'Dialing in' from Hills of Kilimanjaro as a practical matter doesn't work. The council member is neither physically nor mentally present. The remain council is not sure whether there is someone on the line, whether they've dozed off, or disconnected.

In effect these are absences.


12 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 13, 2018 at 9:37 am

To purpose, I see your comments as red herrings in that the matter is about ethics and a reasonable response to valid concerns. Concerned posters – please write council at city.council@menlopark.org to request answers to George Fisher's questions and an agenda topic in response to Rich Cline and Ray Mueller’s request. I will be writing soon and so far, I see no emails on the topic. Writing or speaking publicly at Council meetings, puts the concern into the pubic record where it’s harder to ignore. I only see a MP travel policy that pertains to officially sanctioned trips. Web Link MP also needs a detailed Ethics Code that spans elected officials, city staff and appointed members of our commissions and committees. Web Link I especially like the examples based on values. The conversation about residents’ values is long overdue as our values should guide decision-making in Menlo Park. The only value statement that I can find is at the HR website and it’s aimed at staff Web Link The Institute for Local Government has resources for developing ethics codes Web Link I would like to see an ethics code added to MP’s proposed charter for the Nov 2018 ballot. A Council appointed Charter Committee could work on the code of ethics.


Like this comment
Posted by call to action
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 13, 2018 at 11:57 pm

Lynne, I've quickly scanned the city council inbox but I can't locate an email from George Fisher regarding travel. Please provide a link, in this thread, to the email from George Fisher asking these questions. Thanks!


5 people like this
Posted by Email & Articles
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2018 at 7:02 am

@purpose here is email and articles for background.

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link


10 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 14, 2018 at 7:31 am

George Fisher is a registered user.


My questions as stated in Almanac: “Why is the Menlo Park council taking so many trips and what is happening on them?”

In reviewing Form 700 Statements of economic interest required to be filed annually for a preceding year I have learned that in years 2015-2016 alone Carlton took 5 trips to china and was reimbursed approximately $28,000 and Keith took over 4 trips to China and reimbursed over $12,000. These amounts do not include Keith’s trip to Chengdu in September 19-29, 2015, which does not appear to be included on on her form 700 for that year. They do not include Keith’s trip this year.

Some of the reimbursements claimed were not from a charitable 501c3 organization required by Cal Gov. Code, Political Reform, Ethics Section 89506a required to avoid application of the maximum gift of $470 allowed by section 89503. These raise questions of breaches of elected officials duties of Loyalty and Integrity.

I have also asked the same questions stated in the earlier Almanac Editorial of April 18, 2018:

“Many questions surround this event, as detailed by an article by Kate Bradshaw in this week's Almanac. It is clear that Ms. Keith, whose term as mayor ended last year, was not authorized by her council colleagues to represent the city in China. But beyond that, questions include:
● What exactly was in the document, called an "agreement" and a "memorandum" by the Chinese press, that appears to have been signed by the Dublin mayor, as Ms. Keith and Mr. Siegel stood by? The Chinese press reports, according to certified translations, that the agreement was signed on behalf of the three Bay Area representatives there, including Ms. Keith.
● In at least one photo published by the Chinese press, Ms. Keith appears to be wearing the city of Menlo Park's "Mayor" pin. Why would she represent herself as the city's mayor when she doesn't serve in that capacity?
● What was the purpose of Ms. Keith's participation, wearing a city of Menlo Park pin, at a ceremony that, according to the Chinese press, benefited a private firm whose CEO is the former Mountain View council member, Mr. Kasperzak?
● Why would Ms. Keith, Menlo Park city pin affixed to her blazer, attend a function in another country representing the city when she was not authorized by her council colleagues to do so?
These are questions the public has a right to ask, and to have answered”

These questions have not been satisfactorily answered, particularly by Keith’s brief purported disclaimer to City Council that she performed no official duties on recent trip.


Like this comment
Posted by call to action
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2018 at 9:46 am

Lynne, you may have misrepresented the situation. George Fisher provided questions to reporters. It appears Keith has responded to these questions in several published articles. Mr. Fisher may believe these questions have not been "satisfactorily" answered, as he commented above, but he has not written to the city council inbox where the public can see the questions and individual council members can respond.


5 people like this
Posted by Patrick
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 14, 2018 at 9:47 am

Fisher writes: "In reviewing Form 700 Statements of economic interest required to be filed annually for a preceding year I have learned that in years 2015-2016 alone Carlton took 5 trips to china and was reimbursed approximately $28,000 and Keith took over 4 trips to China and reimbursed over $12,000. These amounts do not include Keith’s trip to Chengdu in September 19-29, 2015, which does not appear to be included on on her form 700 for that year. They do not include Keith’s trip this year. "

no words.


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