ENCINITAS — An eruption of party infighting arising from a long-simmering political feud appears to have derailed a Republican incumbent’s chances of retaining her school board seat in Encinitas and jeopardized the party’s chances of reestablishing a conservative board majority in November.
Trustee Maureen “Mo” Muir, serving District 1 on the San Dieguito Union High School District board, announced on Aug. 11 that she would not seek re-election this fall, just days after the San Diego County Republican Central Committee voted to drop Muir’s endorsement.
But a former central committee member, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, told The Coast News prominent Republican Phil Graham, a former 76th Assembly District candidate, and Brian Brady, a former member of the San Diego County GOP, lobbied committee members to withhold Muir’s endorsement based on her connection to robocalls propagating false allegations of sexual misconduct that derailed Graham’s political aspirations in 2018.
In the days leading up to Muir’s endorsement vote last month, Graham, stepson of former California Gov. Pete Wilson, and Brady made a series of phone calls to committee members urging them to vote against Muir’s endorsement at the upcoming meeting.
Brady published a scathing opinion of Muir on Aug. 5 on SD Rostra, a website calling itself the “wild west of San Diego politics,” asking members of the county GOP to reject her upcoming endorsement.
Graham reportedly attended the Aug. 11 central committee meeting in person and lobbied Republican committee members not to support the San Dieguito school board incumbent. According to sources familiar with the meeting, Muir lost the endorsement by two votes, 20-18.
Both Graham and Brady acknowledged persuading committee members to vote against the party’s endorsement of Muir. However, both men insisted their actions were not out of spite or a desire for political revenge.
“My motivation for what I did was the same as the central committee members who voted against her endorsement,” Graham told The Coast News. “(Muir) is an immoral bad actor and a horrible Republican. The party should be applauded because they correctly policed themselves by not giving her this endorsement.”
Brady agreed, saying he was disturbed by the Muirs’ alleged “immoral” political conduct.
“I’m a lifelong Republican, and I spent seven years getting Republicans elected, so yes, I have lots of friends on that committee, and the Muirs are bad actors,” Brady said. “So this is an absolute blessing to every resident in San Diego County that these two are out of politics forever.”
False accusations, robocalls and a lost election
In 2018, Graham’s campaign for the 76th Assembly District seat went into a tailspin after a woman publicly accused him of sexual misconduct while later admitting she had fabricated her story.
Nichole Burgan, Graham’s accuser, told the media that Graham had forcibly kissed her after a night of drinking in the early morning hours of May 14, 2018, at the 1st Street Bar in Encinitas. Burgan filed a report, prompting the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into her allegations.
But variations in Burgan’s story to different media outlets and a series of restraining orders accusing her of filing false reports raised doubts about the veracity of her claims.
After reviewing video surveillance and interviewing several witnesses, the Sheriff’s Department later disproved Burgan’s claims and publicly exonerated Graham. Burgan later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false police report and was sentenced to two days in county jail and three years probation.
At the time, Muir was running for the state Assembly seat against Graham, a fellow Republican, in a contentious primary race. In an apparent effort to winnow the large field of primary candidates, Muir’s husband, former Encinitas City Council member Mark Muir, paid $800 to Kenneth Moser, owner of Marketing Support Systems, for a series of robocalls spreading the already well-publicized sexual misconduct allegations against Graham.
Moser’s company apparently made approximately 47,000 spoofed robocalls with Mark Muir’s pre-recorded message over the course of two days. But Moser illegally spoofed the caller ID information with that of his business rival, which later prompted an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
According to Moser’s statements to the FCC, Mark Muir reportedly provided Moser with a pre-recorded message and requested to remain anonymous.
“Vote carefully on June 5,” the recorded message told voters. “We don’t need any more creeps in Sacramento. Don’t vote for Phil Graham. #JustSayNo.”
The same day Moser claimed Mark Muir ordered the robocalls — May 29, 2018 — the Sheriff’s Department issued a press release clearing Graham of any wrongdoing.
However, Mark Muir wasn’t the only individual paying for campaigns against Graham. PACE of California School Employees Association spent $60,993.63 starting May 29, 2018, on mailers, “paid phones” and “research for paid phones” also repeating the false accusations against Graham, according to the California Secretary of State.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $10,760 for text messages and phone banks and SEIU California State Council Political Committee paid $25,086 for a mailer that quotes Burgan’s allegations as published in The Coast News and states, “The Republican Party should reconsider its endorsement of Assembly candidate Phil Graham.”
Despite law enforcement clearing his name, Graham lost the top-two primary race after coming in third behind Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner-Horvath (D-Encinitas), who eventually won the seat and still holds the office.
When The Coast News inquired about the telephone marketing campaign, Mark Muir admitted ordering the robocalls to help his wife’s bid for the California State Legislature. Still, he emphasized that he did so before the Sheriff’s Department cleared Graham or Burgan retracted her story.
According to Mark Muir, Graham’s June 5 primary loss was more likely due to the crowded nature of the race and not false sexual assault allegations.
“The robocalls came after ballots had gone out already,” Mark Muir said. “What happened is that you had six people running for that spot, and that split the pot. The accusations didn’t help (Graham), but that wasn’t why he lost.”
Moser, owner of the company responsible for disseminating the robocalls, was later fined $9.9 million by the FCC for the unlawfully spoofed robocalls. And while the allegations in the robocalls were later determined to be false, Mark Muir was cleared by the FCC of having any involvement in Moser’s illegal activities.
Shortly after his wife’s endorsement was rejected, Mark Muir said county GOP leadership offered to hold another vote and re-endorse Maureen Muir, but she refused the offer.
However, Graham continues to blame the Muirs for the vanquishing of his San Diego political career, accusing the couple of intentionally spreading false allegations to score political points during the primary.
“What happened in 2018 changed the election, and it ruined Phil’s life,” said Brady. “(The Muirs) were petty and jealous because Phil did the hard campaign work, and they didn’t. So not only did [Maureen Muir] not compete fairly, but they lied and conducted character assassination, plain and simple.”
As a result of the damage caused by Burgan’s false accusations and subsequent media firestorm, Graham eventually left the area, but would not disclose his current state of residence.
“(The Muirs) knowingly spread these false allegations against me in 2018,” said Graham. “The purpose of the Muirs orchestrating the slanderous robocalls against me was to both hurt my campaign and to destroy my character. Both were successful. And they knew it was immoral because they tried to hide who did the robocalls.”
While multiple Republican insiders believe Maureen Muir’s decision to leave the race was a direct result of her losing the party endorsement, many disagreed about the level of Graham’s influence over the process.
“I think Phil exerted influence over the process; it just doesn’t make sense otherwise,” the anonymous former committee member told The Coast News. “(Graham) and his allies sort of hijacked this whole thing. I don’t think they thought it would go as far as it did. They thought they would give her a black eye, but it went all the way.”
The former county GOP Central Committee member also criticized Graham for exacting his revenge by attacking fellow Republicans through the endorsement process.
“Phil feels completely wronged and blames the Muirs for losing his campaign, but the truth is that he’s been a loser the whole time,” the former committee member said. “(Graham) ran for three different seats in his career, and he lost all three. I can tell you from personal experience that the guy doesn’t work for his own campaign. He relied on his stepdad [Pete Wilson] to bring in the bacon.
“Phil lost his race and nobody else. I think he’s never been able to recover and wants to blame somebody. I don’t know why the committee members didn’t see this and recognize this as a problem behavior. For whatever reason, (Graham) seems to have been considered a credible voice, so that was definitely part of it.”
A member currently sitting on the county Republican Central Committee who insisted on anonymity due to their current role, downplayed Graham’s influence over the committee, claiming Muir “lost the room” at the endorsement meeting because of her failure to network within the party successfully.
“No, I don’t think that Phil Graham had a lot to do with this,” the current committee member said. “(Graham) lobbied the committee, yes, but Phil being able to make the point that he did was made easier by Maureen’s behavior. (Maureen) needed to spend the time leading up to the meeting convincing these people that she would … be a part of the team, but she decided that she was too important to do that.
“This woman is so arrogant and full of herself that she couldn’t even see this as a learning moment. Instead, she takes her ball and goes home. So yeah, I’m glad she’s not going to be on the school board at this point. She actively lost herself the endorsement.”
If Muir had stayed in the race, she would face a familiar challenger, Democrat Rimga Viskanta, a former trustee on the Encinitas Union School District board. In 2014, Muir was the top vote-getter and defeated Viskanta by more than 10,000 votes in an at-large election for the San Dieguito school board.
With Muir out of the race, Viskanta briefly appeared to be running unopposed in Trustee Area 1 of the San Dieguito school board. Just two days before the filing deadline, David Carattini, a local businessman, little league coach and district parent, announced his intention to run with the county Republican Party’s endorsement.