Monday, June 29, 2009

Sutton still being investigated for conflicts of interest

By Ed Zieralski

Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton remains the target of an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission's enforcement division for his alleged conflicts of interest regarding his employment at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and his decision making on the Marine Life Protection Act.

Sutton told fellow commissioners and a commission audience in Woodland on Thursday that he received an advice letter from the FPPC that "has cleared the air," and that it agrees that "there are no conflicts, that I am able to fully participate in any and all MLPA public processes and deliberations regarding marine protected areas for the North Coast region without conflict."

But not so fast.

I have a a copy of the letter Sutton received from the Fair Political Practices Commission, and it clearly states that the letter to Sutton is merely an advice letter from the legal division of the FPPC that Sutton's attorney requested. The letter from the FPPC says it is based solely on the facts Sutton's attorney presented and "does not evaluate any conduct that has already taken place."

The letter is based on Sutton's claim that he nor the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where he is vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation and director of its Center for the Future of the Oceans, will benefit financially from Sutton's votes on the commission.

A spokesman from the FPPC said Sutton will continue to be investigated. The FPPC's enforcement division will continue to gather its own facts regarding the sworn complaint against Sutton filed to the FPPC by the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition. The complaint states Sutton violated the Political Reform Act of 1974 because of his conflicts of interest on votes on the Marine Life Protection Act while serving as a commissioner.

The FPPC concluded in its advice letter to Sutton: "There is a nexus between Commissioner Sutton's private and public obligations in the governmental decisions at issue. The Act therefore permits his participation in these decisions only if it is not resonably foreseeable that they will have any financial effect on the Aquarium or on Commissioner Sutton's own personal finances. Assuming that your account of the facts correctly states that there is no such reasonably foreseeable financial effects, the Act will not bar his participation in these decisions."

The FPPC letter also makes it clear that it does not address Sutton's possible violation of common law conflict of interest or Government Code Section 1090.

When it filed its charges against Sutton to the FPPC, the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition said it has "more aggressive legal avenues to pursue if Commissioner Sutton does not resign.

"Such measures could result in civil money damages against Sutton, but we are hopeful that he will do the right thing for California," said Melvin de la Motta, president of the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition, when charges against Sutton were filed.

The Coalition claimed that Sutton's votes on the MLPA violated the Fair Practices Act "because it was reasonably foreseeable that the decision would have a material financial effect on his own income and on his employer and source of income, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation. As vice presicent and founding director of the Aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans, Sutton is paid a salary to influence policy and to support efforts to create a network of marine protected areas in California and offshore waters, including fully protected marine reserves. Had Sutton voted to ammend the existing MPAs for the Central Coast (which are included in the Master Plan), he would have been voting to gut or weaken a system of MPAs in which his employer exults, the Center for the Future of Oceans, under his stewardship, played a 'key role' in having adopted."

So, where does all this go from here?

Let's see what the FPPA's enforcement division comes up with on its own in regard to investigating Sutton and his alleged conflicts of interest. The Central Coast Fisheries Coalition drew up an incredible graphic that ties Sutton to many other key participants involved in the MLPA process, including the main funders of the process, the Packard Foundation, and Meg Caldwell of the Blue Ribbon Task Force.

So, let's see if the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition carries this to the next level and pursues "more aggressive legal avenues" against Sutton.

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