The runoff race for the Seal Beach District One City Council seat is over but there’s new information about the origins of a series of controversial campaign ads that came out in the weeks before the Jan. 29 mail-in ballot election.
At Monday’s council meeting, Joe Kalmick, the target of the negative ads, was sworn in as the new representative for Old Town and Surfside replacing Ellery Deaton who termed out.
The attack ads accuse Kalmick, a longtime resident and former business owner, of threatening behavior and point to inconclusive surveillance video showing Kalmick frustrated with filing paperwork during a visit to the City Clerk’s counter at City Hall last July.
In the silent video, Kalmick is seen quickly extending his arm one time in the direction of the Deputy City Clerk Dana Engstrom. The movement, and others’ reaction to it, is open to interpretation. Deaton is seen in the video as a witness to the interaction. Neither Deaton nor Engstrom appear to visibly react to the gesture. A Seal Beach Police Department incident report shows Engstrom said she was “somewhat concerned” with Kalmick’s action but did not feel threatened.
Seal Beach District One voters condemned the negative ads in online postings. They gave Kalmick 65 percent of the vote to defeat his opponent, Peter Amundson, whom Deaton endorsed.
A Northern California-based political group funded the mailers and social media ads that came out Jan. 7, but we’re just now learning how the group obtained the surveillance video of Kalmick’s visit to City Hall.
The conservative political fundraising group the California Taxpayer Protection Committee filed a Public Records Act (PRA) request with the City of Seal Beach to access the surveillance video. It had detailed information in that request, specifically that a candidate visited the City Clerk’s counter on July 31, 2018 between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
What is not known is exactly how this outside political group first learned of the July incident or how it got the specific information it used to file the request to obtain the video used in the ads.
Those questions become even more relevant since the group’s timeline for the launch of the ads has a major discrepancy. The spokesman for the group said a story he saw online in the Sun sparked its “investigation,” which lead to the PRA request for the video and culminated in the attack ads.
But documents obtained by the Sun show that the group actually filed its request for the video two days before that story was ever published in the Sun.
Additionally, there is a newly discovered connection between the political group behind the ads and Kalmick’s runoff opponent. The person that filed the Public Records Act request for the video used in the ads knows Amundson personally and donated $500 to his campaign.
‘Without the video, we had nothing’
The negative mailers and ads on social media were launched in early January by the California Taxpayer Protection Committee, or CTPC, a conservative political fundraising group that describes itself on its Facebook page as a group of volunteers and affiliated groups “who believe that government spending is out of control and taxes are too high.”
“Without the video, we had nothing,” Mike Spence, spokesperson for the group said in a recent interview. Spence, who was removed as Mayor of West Covina last May, said his group had been monitoring city council races throughout Orange County since before the November 2018 election. According to filings with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, the CTPC spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads to influence elections in Anaheim, Irvine and elsewhere.
The ads in Seal Beach cost the group more than $7,400 and center on the surveillance video taken at City Hall last July.
The mailers featured stills from the surveillance video and online ads sent readers to a YouTube page with the video. The ads also used quotes from and linked to a Sun News story about the retirement of City Clerk Robin Roberts in which she speaks about an increase in the number of visitors becoming agitated at City Hall and her launching of a “Choose Civility” program.
In the story, Roberts describes a visitor who made a “punching gesture” at the City Clerk’s counter. No one is named and no date is mentioned in the story but she does discuss watching surveillance video of the visit which she says she was “appalled” by.
The Sun News article on Roberts was published in print on Dec. 20, 2018. A person named Edward H. Chen filed a PRA request for the video on Dec. 18, 2018. Spence and Chen both confirmed Chen’s Dec. 18 PRA request was used to obtain the surveillance video on Dec. 28. They used the video in ads against Kalmick starting Jan. 7.
Spence had said the Roberts’ retirement story was what sparked his group’s digging into an encounter at the City Clerk’s counter, but the PRA request form shows the impossibility of that timeline.
When asked about the discrepancy, Spence said he couldn’t explain it. “It’s all a blur because I wasn’t writing down dates and times,” he said in a recent phone interview. In initial interviews, Spence said he read the Sun story online Dec. 21. But after hearing of the inconsistency, he said he didn’t recall the dates and just knew he “read it on his phone.”
In an interview last month, Chen said he was initially told about Kalmick’s alleged behavior by Spence and was asked to file a PRA request for the group. “This is something I think the public should know,” Chen said when recalling why he got involved.
Chen’s PRA request reads, in part, “I would like to request surveillance camera footage from the Seal Beach City Clerk’s Office between 11AM-1PM on July 31st, 2018. Please note that I am interested only in footage containing interaction city staff and any candidate seeking local public office [sic] during that time period.”
Chen said Spence supplied him with the detailed information used in the PRA request form. In a later interview, Spence said that wasn’t the case. “I have a different recollection of what Ed has,” he said. Spence emphasized that there were many people involved in the process of getting the ads together, including people in Seal Beach, but he couldn’t recall specifics of who did what and declined to name anyone involved. When pressed about where the information came from, Spence said, “We got that somewhere, somehow.”
Spence, who confirmed that he knows Amundson and worked on Peter Amundson Sr.’s 2006 campaign for Arcadia City Council, said he was never in communication with anyone from Amundson Jr.’s campaign regarding the mailers. Spence said to coordinate with any decision-maker in the campaign would violate campaign finance laws. Spence also said he never spoke to anyone at City Hall.
Chen works as Director of Governmental Affairs at Athens Services, a trash hauler with contracts in a number of cities in Los Angeles County. Chen has also been active in conservative politics and has worked on previous campaigns. “I have a wide array of friends, political operatives in local government,” Chen said but declined to name anyone.
According to campaign finance filings, Chen donated $500 to Amundson’s campaign for city council on the same day he filed the PRA request for the video. Chen said he knows Amundson personally but never spoke to him or anyone affiliated with his campaign about the mailers.
In a recent phone interview, Amundson acknowledged he knows Chen from professional “networking” but couldn’t remember the last time he talked to him. Amundson works for Minuteman Transport, his family’s company, which is based in the City of Industry. He said he was aware of Chen’s donation to his campaign but was not aware of Chen’s involvement in the development of the attack ads.
Of the ads, Amundson has maintained he was never involved with them and after the election admitted they could have impacted his campaign. “I don’t agree with it,” he said of the ads and added, “I think it was pretty extreme.”
‘How did information about the video originally get out?’
Chen’s PRA request had detailed information about an event that had not been publicized but it’s unclear exactly how many people knew or had access to that information.
“You have no idea how many people knew,” Spence said during a recent interview.
The information was known and accessible to a handful of people working at Seal Beach City Hall, including staff at the City Clerk’s office and the City Manager’s office, and to some Seal Beach Police Department personnel. It was known by Kalmick, Deaton, Roberts and Engstrom, who were all present and seen in the video.
Deaton claimed she gossiped with some people about the encounter back in July but then stopped talking about it when she learned Engstrom was concerned by Kalmick’s actions.
Chen said he did not get assistance from anyone at the City Clerk’s office when he filled out his PRA request online. Roberts said no one from her office supplied information to Chen.
Roberts said a PRA request would need to have detailed information such as a date and timeframe to get the video. She said staff strived to be professional and to do their job in an impartial manner.
“Nothing out of the ordinary occurred with regard to the City’s response to the requests for copies of the video in question or other PRA requests for information related to the July 31 incident,” Assistant City Manager Patrick Gallegos wrote in a statement. Gallegos said it was important to understand the requests were the first for copies of surveillance video the City had ever received. “There are no ‘policies’ or a ‘protocol’ for that type of response, so the City Clerk’s office responded using their best judgment, supported by the advice of the City Attorney.”
Gallegos declined to answer questions about what happened at City Hall on July 31, 2018 and wrote “The City has no comment related to this matter.”
“How did the information about the video originally get out?” Kalmick asked in a recent phone interview. “There’s only so many people at City Hall.”
Kalmick noted the connection his predecessor had to his opponent’s campaign. “She’s the only link between that video and anybody in Peter Amundson Jr’s campaign,” he said.
Deaton said she had nothing to do with the ads and doesn’t know anyone affiliated with them or the group behind them. “There’s no way I had any interest in running that kind of politics,” Deaton said.
For Deaton, the issue is “dead.” “The campaign is over,” she said.
The campaign is over and didn’t turn out how the CTPC had hoped. Spence said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
Kalmick said he thought thegroup made a mistake with its negative ads. “They miscalculated that something like this would be effective in a town like ours,” Kalmick said. “The people believe in decency and nonpartisanship. We don’t want outside money and outside politics dictating the results of our election.”