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Eleventh-hour criminal complaint brought against group supporting Vista marijuana referendum

VISTA — As the clock struck 11 on the eve of Election Day, the city of Vista brought a five-count misdemeanor criminal complaint against a group which has spearheaded fundraising efforts for Measure Z, a ballot initiative which would legalize medical marijuana in the city.

Brought in the Superior Court of California for San Diego’s North County on Nov. 1 by the Carlsbad-based City Attorney Darold Pieper, the criminal complaint alleges multiple city of Vista municipal code campaign finance violations by the group Safe Vista-Safe Access-Safe Community.

Those violations, the complaint alleges, center around campaign mailers distributed by the group that endorsed political candidates running for local office in Vista. But in so doing, says the complaint, they did not include the proper disclosure notice stating that the mailer was not authorized or endorsed by those candidates.

In this case, those candidates were Joe Green, running for mayor in Vista, and Corinna Contreras, running for City Council in Vista. In a statement provided to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the first outlet to report on the lawsuit, Green distanced himself from the campaign literature.

“The information contained in the mailers was sent from a PAC unaffiliated with my campaign,” Green said. “All photos, web sites, and information was obtained via public access and was in no way authorized or produced, by me, my campaign committee, or members.”

The existence of the lawsuit first came to the attention of The Coast News via a Nov. 1 email sent by Mary Azevedo. Though not disclosed in the email, Azevedo said in a response to a question sent via email that she serves as a campaign consultant for Vista Mayor Judy Ritter.

And Ritter, in turn, has for months come out with a strong stance against Measure Z, calling it a referendum which has the support of an out-of-town financial backer, Malibu-based Barry Walker.

“The actions of the Measure Z campaign show they have no respect for campaign rules in Vista or the Fair Political Practices Commission regulations,” Azevedo, who served as treasurer for current U.S. Secretary of Energy and former Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential run, told The Coast News. “I believe the mail sent out was deliberately done to appear it was from the candidates they know support their measure. If they are successful in passing Measure Z, will this blatant disregard of the law continue? I believe the city should maintain control of all aspects having to do with marijuana.”

Walker was named in the criminal complaint as a co-defendant alongside the group which he has helped fund, Safe Vista-Safe Access-Safe Community, a group which has pumped over $107,000 into the electoral efforts aimed at getting the ballot initiative passed. In response to questions sent via email, Pieper said that the lawsuit was brought independently of Ritter.

“The City Attorney/City Prosecutor is solely responsible for determining that criminal charges should be filed on behalf of the City,” Pieper said. “No one on the City Council was aware that charges were being considered or filed until after that had occurred.”

But Cody Campbell, former member of the Vista City Council affiliated with another group which supports Measure Z — Vistans for Safe Community Access — told The Coast News that he thought it was “very strange for the city to file a lawsuit of this nature” at this point in time during election season. He also called it a “political stunt” and a sign that city officials fear the passage of the ballot initiative. Campbell noted that generally, when campaign ethics violations ensue, they are brought by stakeholders to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which then attempts to handle the matter in ways short of bringing criminal charges.

Responding to this line of critique, Pieper said that in his initial cease-and-desist letters sent to the Safe Vista organization — one sent on Oct. 22 and the other on Oct. 25 — he also sent copies to the Fair Political Practices Commission “in the event they may decide to take action in the future.”

“Our office received written and verbal complaints from citizens of Vista that the charged individuals and entities were unlawfully engaging in Vista Municipal Code violations as they relate to the election,” Pieper said. “Taking action before the election was intended to deter further violations, as is consistently done in other cases where ongoing criminal activity is involved.”

Pieper also said he did not know how the email he had sent around about the lawsuit to city officials got into the hands of Azevedo to begin with. This is not the first time Pieper has tagged Walker with criminal charges, who was earlier hit with a complaint for illegally operating a marijuana dispensary in Vista known as The Green Gopher, noted Pieper.

If convicted on all of the counts, the backers of Safe Vista-Safe Access-Safe Community could face up to a $5,000 fine or six months in jail. At press time as of 8 a.m. Nov. 7, with 43 percent of votes tallied, Measure Z was leading by just over 100 votes, garnering 4,989 in its favor and 4,817 opposed. Ritter, with the same percentage of votes tallied, was up 55 percent to 35 percent over Green in the Vista mayoral race.