Chief Of Staff Also Works On Re-Election
So far, Valley Center rancher Bill Horn has raised more than $100,000 to convince voters he deserves a fifth term on the county Board of Supervisors.
The majority of Horn’s campaign expenses are being paid to his top assistant — Chief of Staff Joan Wonsley — and her three children, according to disclosure reports filed with the county registrar.
All told, the Wonsleys received more than $23,000 between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, the two latest campaign filings state.
The payments, which covered office reimbursements, fundraising, temporary help and other services, represent more than half of the $44,157 Horn spent on his campaign during that period. He retains $63,477 in cash on hand.
There is no law against public employees working for a candidate or an incumbent, as long as the campaign work is not performed on government time, state elections officials say.
But several groups that monitor ethics in government say the payments to the Wonsleys, which range from $32 to $8,341, raise questions for Horn, who was fined nearly $13,000 in 2007 for violating campaign rules and failing to disclose personal income.
“Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Mark Reback of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica group that promotes accountability among elected officials. “A lot of these politicians should be more vigilant about how they’re spending campaign money. It has the appearance of looking out for themselves rather than the public they are elected to represent.”
When first contacted, Horn declined to answer questions about the campaign payments. A week later, he and Wonsley addressed the issue in an extended interview.
Both the supervisor and his top aide said there is nothing untoward — or unusual — about the arrangement.
“I don’t know a chief of staff from the president all the way down to council members that isn’t involved in campaigns,” said Horn, a four-term Republican. “They have to be involved.”
Horn said that Wonsley volunteers for his campaign after hours and that her daughter, Brooke, has been a trustworthy ally for many years. Horn’s chief of staff carries a campaign-paid BlackBerry and returns campaign-related e-mails and phone calls after her county workday, Horn said.
According to the filings, Joan Wonsley has been paid between $175 and $780 roughly once a month — reimbursements for her phone, office and other campaign expenses.
The payments for the year total $4,622.44. As chief of staff to a county supervisor, Wonsley earns just under $150,000 a year.
Brooke Wonsley has collected $18,561.09, most of that for campaign consulting. Her two brothers, Cole and Trent, received $120 each for temporary help, the disclosures state.
“Joan gets reimbursed for her phone, and my fundraiser gets paid the normal commission,” Horn said. “Brooke Wonsley has been my fundraiser in three campaigns. She has raised over $800,000.”
Joan Wonsley said the consulting arrangement serves the supervisor and the campaign well, in part because her daughter lives with her in the Carlsbad house she co-owns with Horn.
“When I go home, my fundraiser is there. I can talk to her,” she said. “I’ve been able to personally train her.”
Horn is not the only elected official in San Diego County to steer campaign donations to his staff or family, but the practice is not common.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, used campaign donations to pay his wife more than $500,000 over 10 years for raising money on his behalf. Other members of Congress also have paid family members with contributions.
Supervisor Pam Slater-Price used campaign funds to reimburse her chief of staff, John Weil, more than $1,000 for various campaign expenses between January and June, records show. She also used campaign funds to reimburse herself $181.50 for a dinner earlier this year.
Robert Fellmeth, who runs the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, said elected officials need to draw clear separations between the work they do in office and their push to get re-elected.
“The rationale has to do with lobbying and influence,” Fellmeth said. “You want your staff doing public work to be as much removed as possible from campaign influence and campaign finance.”
Fellmeth also questioned the value Horn’s donors receive for their money, given that so much goes to Brooke Wonsley, a 26-year-old student with no other professional consulting experience.
“If I’m a campaign contributor, I want them to use the money effectively to promote his campaign,” Fellmeth said.
Derek Cressman of Common Cause, a nonpartisan political advocacy group, said taxpayers have a right to expect public employees to work full time in their official government positions.
“It becomes very difficult to draw bright lines in people’s brains about what they’re thinking about,” Cressman said.
Horn is widely expected to secure another term on Board of Supervisors, which has not changed its makeup since 1995. He is being challenged by Vista Councilman Steve Gronke and Vista contractor Fabio Marchi.
The primary election is in June, with a November 2010 runoff between the top two finishers if no one collects more than 50 percent of the vote.
CAMPAIGN PAYMENTS BY THE NUMBERS
County Supervisor Bill Horn’s campaign payments to his top aide and her three children between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009:
$4,622.44 to Joan Wonsley, Horn’s chief of staff
$18,561.09 to Brooke Wonsley
$120 to Trent Wonsley
$120 to Cole Wonsley
SOURCE: California Form 460s filed at San Diego County Registrar of Voters
Contact the author Jeff McDonald at: (619) 542-4585.