EL MONTE, CA- An El Monte city council member who received $1,100 from a friend toward her breast augmentation is off the hook and won’t face sanctions according to a letter from the Fair Political Practices Commission, the Pasadena Star-News reports.
Normally, such a donation wouldn’t raise eyebrows, however in this case, council member Victoria Martinez Muela’s friend had business pending before the city council, which on the surface would appear to represent a conflict of interest.
The investigation into Muela, which has spanned nearly a year, was closed after they determined the payment for the medical procedure didn’t constitute a “gift” under state law. Therefore, it was not subject to State of California limits and therefore did not qualify as reportable income, said Alex Rose, the counsel for the FPPC’s enforcement division.
“Therefore, the allegations have been disproven, and we are closing this matter with no further action,” Rose wrote in the letter closing the case.
Rose’s letter was somewhat vague and didn’t delve into the rationale behind the board’s decision.
The FPPC produces a fact sheet which defines exemptions to the state’s gifting rules which fall under providing financial assistance with medical expenses and for benefits received from so-called “long-time friends,” or other existing personal relationships. The only requirement is the person providing the gift cannot be “a lobbyist registered to lobby the official’s agency.”
The city of El Monte doesn’t require lobbyists to register with the city. Such a program was briefly considered last year; however they decided not to move forward with plans for a more restrictive lobbyist program.
Muela issued a statement in which she said she is ready to move on from the matter:
“While I was confident the FPPC would find these allegations baseless, I am happy to put this experience in the past,” she stated. “Looking forward to a productive year providing leadership on the El Monte City Council and continuing my unwavering and deep commitment to my community and, above all, my integrity.”
The complaint against Muela was initially filed by former Mayor Andre Quintero, who frequently butted heads with Muela, in July 2021. Quintero claimed the payment violated state law because it went higher than the state’s $460 gift limit in 2016 and was not reported on Muela’s financial disclosures.
In addition to the complaint, Quintero provided a sworn declaration from Muela’s friend and lobbyist, Sigrid Lopez, whereby she admitted the payment and provided copies of her bank statements.
The Star-News said when they spoke to Quintero, he said he was “skeptical” of the FPPC’s ruling and said he had not yet seen their analysis.
“What she did was wrong,” he said. “Whether she will be legally held accountable for it, that’s another story.”
After Quintero filed his initial complaint, the city council removed Muela from appointed commissions, as well as her position as mayor pro-tem.
In a statement last year to the Los Angeles Times, Muela claimed the surgery was needed for a medical condition. Lopez said at that time that she and Muela had known each other for ten years, and said the payment to a Pasadena plastic surgeon was to help offset her friend’s costs. She said she drove Muela back and forth from the clinic, and stayed with her while she recovered.
The possible conflict of interest came about due to Lopez’s employment with Southland Transit, an El Monte based company during that time. Only one month after the December 2016 payment, the city council approved a $700,000 extension of Southland’s contract for public busing and dial-a-ride services. Muela was absent and didn’t participate in that vote.
Both Lopez and Muela have insisted that the financial assistance came without strings attached.
In the Times interview, Lopez said she and Muela were “best friends.” There was a falling out however in 2019 over Muela’s vocal opposition to a cannabis regulation supported by Lopez.
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