(Pictured: Jesus Cardenas. Photo by Vito di Stefano)
By Arturo Castañares
A brother and sister team of political consultants worked both for and against a city council candidate during the 2020 election according to a new investigation request filed with the San Diego Democratic Party by the victim of the fraud.
Marcus Bush, who was endorsed by the Democratic Party in his successful campaign for the City Council in National City in November 2020, requested an internal investigation into Andrea Cardenas who runs Grassroots Resources LLC, a local consulting firm owned by her brother, Jesus Cardenas.
Andrea Cardenas, 31, herself an elected member of the Chula Vista City Council, was up for endorsement by the San Diego County Democratic Party last week when the issue of her involvement in negative campaign mailers attacking Bush became an issue used to oppose her endorsement.
Bush alleges that the Cardenas siblings were involved in opposing his campaign while at the same time their company was being paid by the local Democratic Party to support him and other Democrats in the South Bay areas of San Diego County.
Andrea & Jesus Cardenas
After a presentation last week before an online meeting of the Party’s governing Central Committee where Cardenas claimed she never worked against a candidate endorsed by the local Democratic Party, the group voted 31 to 15 to endorse her re-election campaign in next year’s election. Cardenas received the minimum amount of votes required for an endorsement.
But Bush maintains that evidence points to the consultants having covertly worked against him in his campaign in violation of both of the Party’s bylaws that restrict members and candidates from working against endorsed candidates, and also defrauding the Party as hired consultants paid to provide honest and professional services in support of the Party’s candidates.
“I’m deeply concerned about evidence I’ve seen that in the 2020 election the same consultants the Democratic Party paid to support me as an endorsed candidate were also getting paid to attack me - all while using racist, anti-Black messaging in the process” Bush told La Prensa San Diego in response to questions about his complaint. “I have requested our Party leaders to investigate this matter and take concrete steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Bush added.
Two internal Grassroots Resources invoices from 2020 indicate that both of the Cardenas siblings were involved in executing two campaign mailers attacking Bush.
The invoices were sent to Grassroots Resources from Political Data Inc, a vendor that provides lists of registered voters that campaigns use to mail literature to voters. Two invoices show that the consultants purchased mailing data under the file names “National City List” and “BushNC”.
The first invoice dated October 13, 2020, indicates it was “processed by Jesus Cardenas” and the second one dated October 26, 2020, shows the request was “processed by Andrea Cardenas.”
Less than two weeks later, two political attack mailers against Bush were sent to National City voters on October 22nd and October 28th, 2020, by an independent expenditure committee named Affordable Housing Coalition.
The mailers claimed that "Marcus Bush Found Guilty" implying he had been convicted of some crime, but the issue only involved a local Rotary Club's failure to file tax returns during a period when Bush served as the group's President. "We can't afford Marcus Bush" the ad reads.
The two mailers are listed on the Affordable Housing Coalition's financial disclosure report for the period of October 18 to December 31, 2020. The cost for the mailers were reported as $13,595.65 and $6,802.28, respectively.
But the mailers were not paid for until months after the November 2020 election, as reported on the Affordable Housing Coalition’s campaign finance report for the period of January 1 through June 30, 2021.
The two payments are listed as being paid to Grayson House, LLC, a San Diego-based services company that is part of a consortium of companies owned by Mike McLaughlin and Tony Turpin. The two partners also operate another company name known as TMC Direct or TurpinMcLauglin Direct which is used by Cardenas and the Democratic Party. The combined companies broker jobs to various printers and mail houses that prepare and deliver political mailers.
The Affordable Housing Coalition committee also made a payment of $30,000 for consulting services to Grassroots Resources during the same period as the two payments for the mailers. (See report above)
Individual emails sent by La Prensa San Diego to both Andrea and Jesus Cardenas asking for confirmation or denial of their participation in the attack ads against Bush were not answered. A separate text message sent to Jesus Cardenas also went unanswered.
During the 2020 election cycle, Grassroots Resources was hired by the San Diego County Democratic Party to organize the Party’s support for its endorsed candidates in South San Diego County, including within National City where Bush was an candidate for City Council.
Official campaign finance reports filed by the local Democratic Party reflect expenditures made on behalf of Bush, including his appearance on two slate mailers featuring several candidates, as well as two rounds of door hangers left at homes throughout the City.
The Party’s campaign finance filings for the end of 2020 also show payments to Grassroots Resources of $10,000 and $2,160 during the Oct 18 to December 31, 2020 reporting period. Earlier reports reflect payment to Grassroots Resource for work on behalf of San Diego City Council candidate Stephen Whitburn, County Board of Supervisors candidates Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, and other local candidates.
The local Party’s campaign finance disclosures also include payments to TMC Direct, the other company operated by Turpin and McLaughlin, owners of Grayson House, LLC. TMC Direct was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the local Democratic Party for work on various campaigns during the 2020 election cycle.
TMC Direct also disclosed $3,775 in commission payments made back to Grassroots Resources from its billings to the Democratic Party. Commissions are usually paid to consultants who manage campaign mailings, television and radio commercial buys, and other campaign expenditures.
The local Party also disclosed several payments to Political Data for mailings list used for other candidates, but no expenditure was listed specifically for mailings in National City.
The campaign finance reports filed by the Democratic Party and the Affordable Housing Coalition confirm that both the literature promoting Bush and the attack ads against Bush were knowingly handled at the same time by the same printing and mailing services companies owned by Turpin and McLaughlin, but they used a different name for the same company to disguise the connection to the conflicting work.
Although it is not unusual for the same printer and mail house to handle competing campaigns while maintaining separation, it is unheard of to have to same consultant running opposing sides of the election efforts of a candidate.
Two longtime San Diego political consultants told La Prensa San Diego this week that they had never seen a consultant actively work on both sides of the same campaign, with both saying it would be a gross violation of the trust and duty to their clients.
The Chairwoman of the San Diego County Republican Party outlined how her Party would react to one of their political consultants working to subvert one of their endorsed candidates.
“If a consultant working for our Party backstabbed us by attacking our own endorsed candidate it would not only be a violation of trust but we would demand the return of money we paid and never work with that vendor again,” San Diego County Republican Party Chairwoman Paula Whitsell told La Prensa San Diego.
HYPOCRISY OF HITS AGAINST BUSH
The political attack ads used against Bush highlighted his connection to financial problems at the National City Rotary Club between 2014 and 2016 both immediately before and during the time Bush served as the group’s President.
The mailers stated that Bush failed to file IRS tax returns which caused the group to lose its tax-exempt status. The attack ads claimed that “We cannot afford Marcus Bush.”
A San Diego Union-Tribune article in August 2018 that covered the story of the Rotary Club’s problems explained that the issues began under then-President Mona Rios, who proceeded Bush, and were not discovered until after Bush ended his term as the group’s leader in 2016.
The article states that Bush took responsibility for not finding and correcting the deficiencies. The group’s tax exempt status was later reinstated and members helped pay penalties owed to the IRS for its filing errors.
But two people familiar with the Rotary club issues highlighted the hypocrisy of Cardenas using the attack against Bush when Cardenas has his own issues with companies suspended for not filing their tax returns.
Grassroots Resource was suspended from operating in California in March 2020 for failing to file its annual Statement of Information with the Secretary of State, then in January 2022, the company was suspended by the Franchise Tax Board for failing to file its tax reports.
Companies suspended by either the Secretary of State or the Franchise Tax Board cannot legally operate within the state, or to file or respond to lawsuits in court.
Last year, Cardenas dismissed the suspension as “paperwork” that just needed to be filed, but Grassroots Resources remains suspended by the Franchise Tax Board today after more than two years.
Another company owned by Cardenas, Innovative Media Group, LLC, has also been suspended by the Franchise Tax Board and is now defunct.
CARDENAS WEB OF CONNECTIONS
Grassroots Resources provided campaign services in support of several political campaigns throughout San Diego County in the past several years, including County Supervisors Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, and even Andrea Cardenas’ own campaign for Chula Vista City Council.
Andrea Cardenas has listed Grassroots Resource as her only source of income since at least 2019 when she filed her first economic interest form when she first launched her campaign for Chula Vista City Council.
When Jesus Cardenas took a government job as Chief of Staff to San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn in early 2021, he announced he would step away from day-to-day operations of Grassroots Resources and that his sister would run the company.
At the time, a website for a company named Political Strategies, Inc., which was a partnership between Grassroots Resources, TMC Direct, and the San Diego Group, another San Diego-based consulting group, mentioned that “Today Grassroots Resources is run by Andrea Cardenas, and a team of political professionals.”
An August 2022 San Diego Union-Tribune article outlined how “the success Cardenas has enjoyed in politics has been shared by his sister, 30-year-old Andrea Cardenas, who was elected to the Chula Vista City Council in 2020.”
The article detailed that Andrea Cardenas had not disclosed any of Grassroots Resources clients within her financial conflict-of-interest forms, including a marijuana dispensary and developer clients.
In addition to working for Grassroots Resources, Andrea Cardenas is also a client of TMC Direct and has benefited from their campaign printing and mailing services without paying for the literature until months after her election.
Cardenas ended her successful 2020 campaign for Chula Vista City Council with $38,991.89 in debts, including owing TMC Direct $35,991.89 for six separate campaign mailers delivered to voters without Cardenas paying for them.
Six months after the election, Cardenas loaned her campaign $33,500 and paid off the outstanding debts owed to TMC Direct.
Cardenas’ latest campaign finance report for the first half of 2023 still lists her debts as a total of $36,500, of which $35,800 are loans she made to her own campaign. Under the City’s campaign finance rules, candidate can only loan their campaigns up to $10,000 which can be repaid through campaign contributions, but the remaining loan amounts are considered contributions which cannot be recovered.
After the State filing issue became public in media coverage, another company related to both of the Cardenas siblings became the dominant political consulting entity connected to clients who had previously used Grassroots Resources.
In 2022, Margin Victories LLC began to bill local political clients, including the San Diego Democratic Party, Ammar Campa-Najjar’s unsuccessful campaign for Chula Vista Mayor, and National City Councilman Jose Rodriguez who ran unsuccessfully for Mayor.
There is no company named Margin Victories registered with the California Secretary of State’s office.
A website for Margin Victories only provides an email for contacts, and states that the company is “A JE Strategies Inc. Company”. The address listed on the website is for a UPS Store in Mission Valley.
JE Strategies, Inc. is a corporation registered to Jehoan Espinoza, a local political consultant who previously worked for Grassroots Resources with both of the Cardenas siblings.
Espinoza is registered to vote at the same Chula Vista address as Andrea Cardenas.
A local Democratic Party campaign finance disclosure report for 2022 lists payments to Margin Victories of more than $760,000, including several pass-through payments from Margin Victories to Grassroots Resources.
At the end of the 2022 election cycle, the Democratic Party reported still having more than $240,000 in outstanding invoices payable to Margin Victories.
A San Diego Union-Tribune article in February 2023 reported on the connections between Margin Victories and Grassroots Resources, with Espinoza acknowledging having hired Grassroots Resources to execute social media buys for its clients, and Cardenas admitting that much of the debt still owed by the Party was in fact for his company.
In that article, Democratic Party Chairwoman Becca Taylor “downplayed the campaign services that Cardenas’ company performed to help elect Democrats last year,” the SDUT reported.
“The party did not pay Grassroots Resources directly,” she wrote in a statement to the SDUT. “The direct payments were made to Margin Victories,” acknowledging that the Party knew payments were being paid to Grassroots Strategies through Margin Victories.
The SDUT article went on to report that “Taylor did not answer questions about the ongoing tax-board suspension of Grassroots Resources or why a startup like Margin Victories, with almost no track record and a post office box for an address, generated so much spending by the local Democratic Party.”
Espinoza told the San Diego Union-Tribune that clients sought his consulting expertise after working on Ammar Campa-Najjar's congressional campaign and Campa-Najjar's campaign for Chula Vista Mayor. Campa-Najjar lost both of those races.
Several of Margin Victories’ clients also ended their campaign with large amounts of debts owed for both consulting services and for campaign literature.
National City Councilman Jose Rodriguez reported ending his 2022 unsuccessful campaign for Mayor with more than $46,000 in debt, including $37,000 owed to Margin Victories for consulting and mailings, and an additional $18,214 owed to TMC Direct, the same printing and mail house used by Grassroots Resources.
Rodriguez reported loaning $8,000 to his failed campaign on February 7, 2023 and used that money to pay $6,700 to Margin Victories for phone banking performed during the campaign, but made no payments toward the $25,341 owed to Margin Victories or the $18,214 still owed to TMC Direct for mailings. Rodriguez still owed $46,982 at the end of June 2023.
Other independent expenditure campaign committees continued to use Grassroots Resources directly despite the legal issues with the company.
A group named Residents for a Brighter Chula Vista, created solely to support Ammar Campa-Najjar for Chula Vista Mayor in 2022, raised over $240,000 and paid $50,000 to Grassroots Resources and $3,650 to Political Data. Campa-Najjar lost the election in November 2022.
Campa-Najjar’s own campaign committee for Mayor paid Margin Victories $8,000 as well as over $13,000 to TurpinMcLaughlin Communications, another name the same company owned by Turpin and McLaughlin.
In 2019, the Cardenas siblings were also accused of creating a dozen new Democratic clubs in the South Bay to help steer Party endorsements to their candidates and clients, including Andrea Cardenas herself while she was preparing to launch her campaign for City Council.
Other Democrats charged that the clubs were all created and controlled by the Cardenas siblings. All of the clubs met at the same time and at the same location, and were all organized by Andrea Cardenas.
The influence of the additional votes provided by the new clubs helped to control which candidates gained the Party's endorsement because they collectively made up 25% of the vote of all of the clubs in the South Bay region. At least three of the clubs' presidents had previously worked for Grassroots Recourses.
Bush requested that the Democratic Party investigate the connection between Andrea Cardenas and the attack ads used against him in 2020.
“Yesterday I received evidence that Andrea Cardenas was directly involved in the racist attack ads against me in 2020,” Bush wrote. “I do ask that the SD County Dem Party open an investigation into this matter with the Ethics Committee,” Bush requested.
The Party’s Bylaws and Policies and Procedures outline “the Ethics Committee shall conduct an initial review of the complaint” and that the group “shall evaluate and review the matter pursuant to the steps set forth in the Policies and Procedures.”
“Ethics Committee may recommend, but are not limited to: 1. Removal for Cause, 2. Censure, 3. Suspension, 4. Non-disciplinary settlement of the complaint (e.g. third-party mediation, an apology, cultural sensitivity training, warning, etc.),” the Party’s Bylaws state.
The group can also take action against a consultant or vendor.
“A consultant or vendor who is censured by This Committee may be added to the ‘Do Not Patronize’ list,” the Party’s Bylaws state.
The Ethics Committee has 14 days to review the complaint and 30 days to make a recommendation to the Party’s Executive Committee, which must then agendize the item at a meeting within 14 days.
A message seeking comment on Bush’s complaint sent from La Prensa San Diego to the Party’s South Region Vice-Chair Sara Kent Ochoa was forwarded to Chair Rebecca Taylor and Executive Director Ryan Hurd. No one responded to provide any comment.