By Arturo Castañares
The campaign for a Chula Vista candidate who died months before the November 2022 election failed to report campaign expenditures which now reveal a scheme that misled labor unions and the Democratic Party.
Simón Silva, the Democratic candidate for Chula Vista City Attorney last year, died two months before the November 2022 election but after the date when the Registrar of Voters could have removed his name from the ballot.
The Democratic Party and several Democratic leaders continued promoting Silva’s candidacy in hopes of winning the race against his lone opponent, Dan Smith, the Republican candidate in the race, and forcing a special election where another Democrat could then run to be the City’s next top lawyer.
San Diego Democratic Party mailer sent after Silva had died.
At the time of his death, Silva was the Deputy City Attorney in Chula Vista and was running to replace City Attorney Glen Googins who had already served three four-year terms in office.
Silva went on to win the election posthumously by only 756 votes and created a vacancy when he could not take office in December 2022.
The City Council was then forced to call a Special Election that was estimated to cost the City up to $2 million.
A Special Election was held on November 7th where the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Marco Verdugo, garnered 39% of the vote, followed closely by Democrat Bart Miesfeld with 37.8% and Republican Dan Smith Diaz, the candidate who lost to Silva last year, with 23.1%.
A run-off election between Verdugo and Miesfeld will take place on March 5, 2024, along with the regularly scheduled Primary Election.
A review of Silva’s campaign finance reports reveals several concerning issues, including the fact that the January 11, 2023, filing was signed electronically using Silva's name even though he had died four months earlier.
The report, executed on January 9, 2023, lists Silva as the campaign’s official Treasurer, and David Gould, a professional campaign treasurer, as the Assistant Treasurer.
Under current state law, campaign treasurers can be held personally liable for errors or violations committed by the campaign committee so most professional treasurers list themselves as the assistant and have the candidates serve as their own treasurers.
Silva’s typed name appears in the verification section stating that the person certifies “under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the foregoing is true and correct."
Gould told La Prensa San Diego this week that his company filed the campaign finance reports for Silva’s campaign through a software program that submits the documents electronically to the City Clerk of Chula Vista.
The software requires that two names appear in the signature section of the report which included both Silva’s and Gould’s names as signers.
City Clerk Kerry Bigelow confirmed that her office received the document but did not object to or contest the verification of accuracy signed using Silva’s name even though she was aware he had died months earlier.
UNREPORTED EXPENDITURES REVEAL SCHEME
The reports also reveal that the campaign failed to list any expenditures for yard signs purchased by Silva earlier in 2022, exposing how the campaign disguised its use of non-unionized labor to print their yard signs, a significant issue within Democratic politics.
On March 31, 2022, Silva’s campaign consultant, Jehoan Espinoza, sought an estimate for 250 to 500 campaign yard signs from Union Printing, a local Chula Vista printer.
Union Printing, owned by Jesus Manuel Gonzalez, is a member of the Allied Printing Trades Council labor union.
As a union printer, Gonzalez and other unionized print shops include a small union label -commonly known as a “union bug”- on their printed materials. In addition to the union bug, each company also prints its unique member number next to the union label.
In Democratic politics, candidates are strongly encouraged to use union print shops as a show of support for organized labor and their principles of better pay and working conditions for employees. Candidates and campaigns that do not use union labor are often opposed or lose the endorsement and support of unions, including the county’s powerful Labor Council, and the Democratic Party.
Gonzalez created the artwork for Silva’s signs and emailed a low-resolution digital copy to Espinoza for approval. The artwork included his union bug, member number, and company name.
After receiving the proposal, Espinoza reduced the order to only 100 yard signs for a total cost of $647.06. Gonzalez sent Invoice #1142 made out to Simon Silva for City Attorney 2022, the name of Silva’s campaign committee.
On April 18, 2022, Union Printing was paid for the invoice by JE Strategies, Inc., the parent company of Margin Victories, a local political consulting firm owned by Espinoza, not by the campaign committee.
Espinoza also worked on several other local campaigns last year, including Ammar Campa-Najjar’s unsuccessful race for Chula Vista Mayor, Chula Vista Councilmembers Jose Preciado and Carolina Chavez, and National City Councilman Jose Rodriguez’s failed run for Mayor.
Two weeks later, Silva contacted Gonzalez and asked him to deliver the signs to his home in the Eastlake area of Chula Vista.
Gonzalez told La Prensa San Diego in an exclusive interview that when he arrived at Silva’s home there was a sign in his yard that was identical to the ones Gonzalez had just printed, including having his union bug, member number, and company name printed on the signs.
The lower quality of the printed graphics on the other sign led Gonzalez to conclude that they were printed from the low resolution digital artwork proof he had sent to Espinoza for approval.
The reuse of Gonzalez’s union bug, number, and company name also proved to Gonzalez that the printing was done by a non-unionized printer because a union shop would have been barred from reprinting another member’s bug and instead would have printed their own union bug and member number as required by the union's contract.
Gonzalez states that he confronted Silva about the misuse of his design and union bug, and claims Silva dismissed his concerns saying they had to use another printer to complete more signs than Gonzalez could print, confirming that his campaign knowingly used another vendor.
None of the campaign finance reports filed during Silva’s campaign include any disclosure for the payment of yard signs, either to Union Printing or to any other printer that provided the additional yard signs.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) confirmed to La Prensa San Diego that any expense paid to a sub-vendor for any amount of $500 or more must be properly reported either as a direct payment from the campaign committee or as a sub-vendor to another vendor, including the campaign consultant.
Gonzalez was paid by JE Strategies, Inc., so Espinoza should have disclosed Union Printing as a sub-vendor to Margin Victories, as well as the other printer used for the additional signs.
Margin Victories was paid $8,337 for consulting, $2,897.07 for literature, and $5,000 for Facebook ads, but did not disclose any sub-vendor payments for yard signs.
Gould, the professional treasurer, confirmed to La Prensa San Diego that he was never informed of any expenses for yard signs paid by Espinoza. Gould maintained the campaign committee’s checkbook and he paid invoices submitted to the campaign.
“I was never told of these expenses, and only found out about them when contacted for this story,” Gould told La Prensa San Diego. “I can only report expenses that I know about,” Gould added.
In addition to filing Silva’s final campaign finance report in January, Gould also filed a 410 form to terminate the committee.
In its final financial disclosure report, the committee showed outstanding loans of $2,300 from Silva after having already paid down $2,000 of his previous loans. In addition to his loans, Silva had also donated $30,000 to his campaign in March 2022.
Silvia’s widow, Claudia Silva, is the department head of the San Diego County office of County Counsel, the attorneys who advise and represent county departments. Claudia Silva had previously served as the County’s Director of Ethics and Compliance, Assistant County Counsel, City Attorney for National City, and San Diego Deputy City Attorney.
In recent weeks, Silva has been mentioned as a potential candidate to serve as interim County Chief Administrative Officer while the County conducts a search to replace retiring CAO Helen Robbins-Meyer who will be leaving in January after more than 12 years as the top staffer in San Diego County government.
USING NON-UNION LABOR
Democratic campaigns are usually supported by both public-sector and private-sector unions, as well as the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council that represents 136 unions and over 200,000 workers.
Candidates and political consultants also know that the use of union printers is the expectation and a strongly stated value of the Democratic Party.
All candidates seeking the San Diego County Democratic Party’s endorsement are required to complete a questionnaire, which includes a commitment to only use union printing for their campaign materials.
"Will all your campaign materials except those printed in-house be printed in a union shop and display a union "bug", the symbol used by union print shops?", the Party’s questionnaire asks.
Sara Kent Ochoa, South Area Caucus Vice-Chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party confirmed to La Prensa San Diego this week that Silva signed the questionnaire last year.
"For any campaign to check that box to win an endorsement, then knowingly violate this value to stretch their campaign budget at the expense of workers, is unacceptable," Ochoa said in response to the details of this story.
Not using a union printer for campaign materials could raise significant issues, but disguising the scheme by misusing an authentic union bug on material printed by non-union labor could cause serious problems between the campaigns and union leaders.
Two local labor leaders expressed surprise that a Democratic campaign and consultant would have engaged in such a scheme.
"This is many times worse than simply not using union printing; it is a fraud perpetrated on organized labor and the printers' union itself," one longtime labor organizer told La Prensa San Diego on condition of anonymity to protect their work position.
Espinoza, the consultant, did not return calls and text messages for comment on this story.
Since last year, Espinoza and Jesus Cardenas, his longtime associate and former employer, have worked together on several campaigns under his Margin Victories banner.
In 2022, Espinoza’s Margin Victories billed the local Democratic Party nearly $1 million to manage its outreach efforts for several South Bay campaigns. Espinoza admitted to subcontracting with Cardenas to help run those campaign efforts.
Cardenas and his sister, Chula Vista Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas, were indicted last month on 12 felony counts for fraudulently obtaining a COVID-era federal loan for their consulting firm, Grassroots Resources, and using part of that money to pay campaign expenses.
A review of campaign finance reports showed every campaign led by Cardenas and Espinoza failed to properly disclose the names of the companies that printed their materials, including candidate outreach efforts they ran through the local Democratic Party.
All of those campaigns used the same print broker, TMC Direct, which shielded the disclosure of their sub-vendors who actually printed the materials, making it impossible to confirm that all of the printing was done by unionized shops.
In addition to failing to properly disclose the printers, several of their campaigns also ended their elections with tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid invoices due to TMC Direct.
La Prensa San Diego previously reported how those campaigns benefited from over 500,000 pieces of mail having been sent to voters without paying for the literature for months and even years after their elections.
As of this week, there are over $260,000 worth of unpaid invoices to TMC Direct due for mailings directed by Espinoza and Cardenas from elections held more a year ago.
Candidates that benefitted from unpaid campaign mailings before their elections include County Supervisor Nora Vargas, National City Councilmembers Jose Rodriguez and Ditas Yamane, Chula Vista Councilmembers Andrea Cardenas and Jose Preciado, and Chula Vista Mayor candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar.