Tony and Audra Strickland became well-known in Ventura County in 1998. That’s when then-newcomer Tony was elected to the state Assembly representing the 37th District. He was in his late 20s but, with his baby face and “Oh gosh” countenance, he barely looked old enough to drive a car. His bride was even younger. They bought a modest house in Moorpark, had two adorable kids, a boy and a girl, and have since become a permanent fixture on Ventura County’s political landscape.
When Tony termed out of office after six years, Audra stepped in and won his legislative seat in 2004. Tony is currently in the state Senate, representing the 19th District, having defeated well-known Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson in 2008 by fewer than 100 votes.
This November, Tony is willing to forego the last two years remaining in his Senate term by running — at the personal request of GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman — a second time for state controller, having lost to current Controller John Chiang in 2006. Audra has now termed out of the Assembly seat she holds and, after throwing her hat into the ring for two offices, secretary of state and treasurer-tax collector, she finally fixed her sights on running for county supervisor from the 2nd District, which includes Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Westlake Village, portions of the Oxnard plain and nearby unincorporated areas. It was a decision that required her to move from her home in Moorpark and into the second district. On June 8, she will be squaring off against longtime Republican incumbent Linda Parks for this nonpartisan office.
However, in Ventura County apparently some Republicans are favored over others when it comes to winning political and financial backing from the Ventura County Republican Party and its ability to spend without restrictions on its favorite candidates. It has thrown its considerable support behind Audra Strickland rather than Linda Parks for the upcoming election.
The Stricklands are no strangers to controversy, coming under public scrutiny in recent years by the LA Times and the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for their creation and funding of separate political committees, as well as their unusual practice of paying each other as consultants from contributions to their various individual campaigns for public office.
In fact, on March 30 of this year, the FPPC fined Tony Strickland $3,000 for violating state law in 2008 with a mass mailer attack on then-opponent Hannah-Beth Jackson that failed to disclose that it came from his campaign. Tony’s campaign said it was a mistake. However, the FPPC concluded that Strickland is an experienced politician, and failure to disclose the source of the mailer was “at worst intentional and at best negligent.”
The VCReporter contacted the offices of both Tony and Audra Strickland numerous times. They both declined to comment through their spokespeople. The Ventura County Republican Central Committee, of which Tony Strickland’s mother, Toni, is a member, failed to reply to two requests for an interview, as did supporter and gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s campaign.
Now, Parks and others are taking issue with Audra and Tony Strickland, questioning their juggling and use of campaign funds from the various committees that they both have formed in recent years and still control. And then there’s the issue of residency.
“Audra wants a job, any job,” Parks said. “The term carpetbagger refers to someone who moves into an area specifically to become eligible to run for a political office. Audra Strickland rented an apartment in Thousand Oaks several weeks ago and claims to live in the apartment. When Audra was criticized for this, she attacked me claiming I may as well have been a carpetbagger from Berkeley even though I have lived in Thousand Oaks for over 20 years and, in fact, I’ve never lived in Berkeley.”
Herbert Gooch, a professor of political science at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, sees Audra’s move to Thousand Oaks as less than controversial.
“Legally, Audra moved to the residence within the time allowed,” Gooch said. “It should be noted that she and Tony are scarcely unknown in the district. Though not living within District 2 boundaries, it is not as though it were a case of what most would call carpetbagging. She has represented the district in the Assembly. She is vulnerable to the charge but it doesn’t carry much real weight since she is hardly a stranger to the district.”
So who are Tony and Audra Strickland, the power pair that has been so successful at forging political careers in the East County? Tony was born in 1970 at Fort Ord when his father was in the Army. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Whittier College in Orange County then became a legislative aide to another Republican career politician, state Sen. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay.
Audra also received her BA in political science, only at UC Irvine. And she, too, became a legislative aide to a number of conservative state lawmakers. Not surprisingly, Tony and Audra met at a state Republican Convention in Orange County, and they were married at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda in 1998. Audra spent one year teaching history at a private Christian school. Now married 12 years, when asked by a reporter what her best relationship advice would be, Audra replied, “Ensuring that God is part of our marriage.”
Tony is currently raising money in the form of campaign contributions through one of his many campaign committees, Strickland Senate 2012, Re-Elect Tony. This committee had total cash on hand, as of March 17, of more than $115,600. Tony also has another active committee called Strickland for Controller 2010. As of the same date, records showed the committee was holding more than $24,000.
Tony had other open committees when he started these two committees. Strickland for Controller was activated for his failed 2006 campaign. This committee was not closed until March 17, 2010, and listed nearly 3,000 contributions.
Strickland for Senate, which was opened to collect contributions for his 2008 Senate campaign, is still active and lists nearly 2,000 contributions. All of the open committees can continue to accept contributions even after the election in order to pay the net debt. If there is a surplus, it can be carried over to another committee that has been created for the next election.
Incumbent District 2 County Supervisor Linda Parks said she is confused. “[Tony] has the controller campaign committee, he’s got the Re-Elect Tony Strickland 2012,” Parks said. “Those are two separate offices. How can he run for both?”
Hannah-Beth Jackson, who lost the state Senate race to Tony in 2008, is now a political consultant. Jackson said that she is concerned about distractions from his present Senate office. “It’s very disappointing that someone would spend millions of dollars to win a senate seat and not even care enough about his constituents to fulfill his commitment to the people of the district who desperately need representation,” Jackson said.
With Audra terming out of the Assembly this year, she initially decided to run for secretary of state, opening a campaign committee called Strickland for Secretary of State 2010, Audra. Then she changed her mind and decided to run for Ventura County Treasurer-Tax Collector and opened a campaign committee called Strickland for Treasurer-Tax Collector 2010. Shortly after Audra announced she was running for treasurer, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to mandate certain minimum professional requirements for that office, such as being a certified public accountant or having a college degree in business. Audra did not meet the new standards for the office and was forced to abandoned the campaign.
Then the Ventura County Republican Central Committee announced that if Audra decided to run for county supervisor, they would endorse her candidacy. The seat in Audra’s district, the 4th District, is up for election although it is occupied by Peter Foy, another right-wing conservative. Instead of challenging the incumbent Foy, Audra chose to pursue the Supervisor office for the 2nd District, the seat occupied by incumbent Linda Parks. In order to qualify for the office, a candidate is required to register to vote from a residence within the district no less than 30 days before the filing deadline. Audra rented an apartment in the district and announced her candidacy on Feb. 5. And Audra opened yet another campaign committee called Strickland for Supervisor.
“I think if Audra Strickland is elected she will undo many of the good things we’ve accomplished at the County,” Parks said. “I think Sacramento is broken as a result of divisive politics. Her inability to reach across the aisle and work with her fellow legislators typifies the gridlock in Sacramento that has caused a budget crisis of unprecedented proportions.
The failure of leadership, the partisan nature of her tenure and the special interests that fund her are all unacceptable qualifications for the job of county supervisor.”
Businessman and photographer Larry Janss has deep generational roots in Thousand Oaks and voiced his own concerns over Audra’s candidacy. “Audra is just looking for a job,” he said. “She blows into town, her only line being that she’s serving the people of the area from her experience in the Assembly as a tax-cutter and hard-nosed pro-business Republican. Her voting record in Sacramento doesn’t show anything that she has done of any consequence.”
Even as Audra opened her newest campaign committee, Strickland for Supervisor, the two committees which had been opened for her aborted runs for secretary of state and for county treasurer-tax collector were continuing to accept contributions. Audra also had another two campaign committees that were open and accepting contributions, Strickland 2008, Re-Elect Audra, and Strickland Officeholder Account.
The committees are required to transfer surplus money following the election once the net debt has been paid. As for the total amount collected by each committee, the candidate must file statements showing how much has been contributed for each reporting period. But the total is skewed by the amounts that are then contributed to other committees or other candidates or the Republican Party affiliates.
Despite the Fair Political Practices Commission rules requiring the accounts of terminated campaigns be emptied, when Strickland for Treasurer Tax Collector was closed on March 1, 2010, it still held $21,745.74. Audra Strickland for Secretary of State 2010 was also closed on March 1, 2010, after removing all funds.
A perfect political system
Professor Gooch said the system of financing a campaign can be a tricky road for candidates to travel in many ways.
“There are legal standards, and there are more broad ethical standards, the ‘gold standard,’ ” Gooch said. “Presumably the intent of the campaign finance rules of the state and the county is to limit spending and promote full disclosures. To move monies accumulated in one committee for one set of previous purposes, and transfer it to another campaign committee raises two questions. First, should the practice be subject to the limit for each donation from each committee? Second, how should it be reported, who is really the donor?”
Gooch said this arrangement of money shifting can make a race unbalanced. “Unfortunately, many established politicians do this, transfer money raised in one campaign or another, and then transfer it for use in a current campaign,” he said. “It gives a huge advantage to incumbent politicians who run several times and retain excess funds or use races to store up funds to be spent in other races.”
Campaign finance reform can be tricky, and Gooch said some types of contributions have not yet been addressed or regulated. “I don’t like the way ‘soft’ money is used to funnel money to candidates,” he said. “But it is perfectly legal, whether through independent expenditures or party central committees. I believe in full immediate disclosure. I recognize how difficult it is to limit donations and expenditures.”
Gooch described a perfect political system. “Ideally, I would like to see restrictions on money raised to just that coming from within the district,” he said. “Not only who is giving the money but where it is coming from should be disclosed and advertised to all voters in as timely and universal a manner as possible.”
It’s the little things
Tony is running for state controller, a position with enormous financial responsibilities. According to the secretary of state job description, “The State Controller supervises the fiscal affairs of the state, suggests plans for improvement and management of public revenues, keeps all accounts in which the state is interested, and keeps a separate account for each specific appropriation, showing at all times the balance of the appropriation. The State Controller supervises the state’s fiscal concerns and all claims against it. The State Controller directs the collections of all monies due the state.” The controller oversees a $131 billion state budget and $300 billion in pension funds.
However, Tony and Audra Strickland have fines and violations on financial affairs, both political and personal. Here are some of them.
In October 2003, Sacramento County placed a lien on the Stricklands’ property in Sacramento as a result of delinquent utility charges in the amount of $95.95. In April 2004, a second lien was placed on their property by Sacramento County, also for delinquent utility charges in the amount of $103.88.
In 2004, the Stricklands were three months late in paying their second installment of property taxes for one of their homes in Moorpark. They paid a penalty of $126.86.
In December 1999, Tony Strickland was sued by the secretary of state over failure to report $116,140 in late contributions, a violation of the Political Reform Act of 1974. It resulted in a fine of $6,000.
State Senator Tony Strickland is paid $112,490. Assemblywoman Audra Strickland earns $114,602. Each is eligible for an additional $35,000 a year in tax-free per diem payments along with state-paid vehicle allowance, gasoline and car insurance.
On April 13, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that beginning in 2001, Tony Strickland’s anti-tax nonprofit organization California Club For Growth, and Audra Strickland’s consulting firm Golden State Strategies, which was co-owned by their close friend and chief of staff Joel Angeles, had paid each other more than $138,000. The name of Golden State Strategies was changed to 20/20 Innovation, Inc. in 2006. The Stricklands say that Audra sold her interest in Golden State Strategies to Angeles in December 2002. Tony said that Ventura County prosecutors had looked into the payments to each other’s firms and found “no criminal activity.” Tony also said that they had served as paid consultants to each other’s campaigns, adding that it was common for politicians to hire relatives to work on campaigns.
In response, Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles commented that he had “never seen both spouses being paid to work on each other’s campaigns.”
Soon after being fined by the FPPC, Tony put his weight behind SB 739, which bans spouses from being hired and paid for services rendered by their spouse/candidate for a political campaign, precisely what the Stricklands admitted to having practiced for five years, claiming the practice was legal in 2006. In a press release heralding the importance of the bill, Tony said, “We (politicians) just don’t have a lot of trust, so we need to do whatever we can here in the Legislature to build it back.”
Parks said there were even more violations. “Just in January of this year, Audra was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting gifts from Indian gaming,” she said. “Audra is currently under investigation for violating Ventura County’s campaign laws.”
Although some citizen complaints have been filed against one or the other Strickland, Kevin Drescher, Supervisor of the District Attorney’s Major Fraud Unit, said his office was unable to provide any information.
“Our office takes in citizen complaints, and sometimes we look into them if we think they have merit, and if it does and we actually take action, then that is something I can talk about. If not, then we don’t confirm or deny anything as one of the functions of our public integrity unit. As far as the Stricklands, there is nothing that I can talk about.”
Ethics: A fuzzy line
Pro-Audra mailers have filled the mailboxes of targeted Republican voters for the past several weeks, entirely paid for by the Ventura County Republican Party. According to Linda Parks, these 15 mailers, which sometimes have been sent out twice in one day, are nothing but attacks on Parks. Even on the VCRCC Web site, where all Republican candidates currently running for office are listed, Parks is conspicuously absent from the list, although Parks is a Republican. The county supervisor seat is a nonpartisan office.
Parks said the mailers have been full of lies about her record. “It just comes down to ethics. I am morally outraged that they are saying things I never did in order to get people to vote against me. I think they are dishonest for that. Go after me for something I’ve done, like SOAR. But because those kinds of things work, it puts me in a defensive position.”
Among some of the claims on the mailers, the pro-Audra camp said Parks supported the Channel Island Boating Center, raising the car tax, and voted to eliminate crossing guards. However, Parks said she and John Flynn voted against the boating center, there was never a vote in support of increasing the car tax and crossing guard funding was cut nine years before Parks was on the Board of Supervisors.
Janss said that although he has not always supported Parks, her positions on the whole have been good for the county. “What I’ve admired about her is her dedication to her post and her transparency,” he said. “She wears her politics on her cuff, and there’s no bull with Linda. She is a very strong environmentalist and has been responsible for bringing clean and green business to the county.”
Gooch pointed out that both Audra and Linda have sent out mailers. “The charges made by both sides verge on, if not define the term ‘hit piece,’ ” Gooch said. “They are often vicious and crude negative pieces which distort and take out of context the records and statement of opponents. Neither Linda nor Audra’s side has clean hands in this regard, but for sheer volume, Audra’s side is loudest and most frequent.”
And there is the issue of financial limits imposed by campaign finance reform. The mailers are very expensive; and the mailer firm DMH & Associates, owned by Darin Henry, a former Strickland staffer, has been paid handsomely by the VCRP. This does not sit well with Parks.
“The candidates are limited to taking contributions of $700 maximum,” she said. “We have a maximum spending limit of $180,000. We signed a pledge that we would not exceed that amount. The violation that I see is more of a moral one. The mailers are legal.” As of mid-March, the VCRP reported that it had spent much more than $100,000 in support of Audra Strickland, even before the mailers were sent out. In fact, nearly all of the contributions made and expenditures listed by the Ventura County Republican Party have been in support of Audra and no other candidate.
Additionally, big donors who are limited by law as to how much they can contribute to an individual candidate or campaign committee are free to contribute as much as they choose to a political party. Likewise, a political party is free to contribute an unlimited amount to a candidate. This is what is called soft money, and it is almost entirely unregulated, despite many attempts at meaningful campaign finance reform. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a recent ruling that shields private entities, including corporations, even those from other countries, from campaign contribution limits under the First Amendment freedom of speech, tighter reform seems unlikely to be enacted anytime soon..
“Where I am gathering little chunks of money, they can circumvent the contribution and expenditure limits,” Parks said. “We are anticipating they will spend $1 million and possibly $1.5 million. I think that’s unethical. I feel like it is more than just a normal supervisor race.”
Another issue in the supervisorial campaign is the authenticity of Audra’s apartment as her primary residence. She was required to live within the district boundaries in order to run for that office. She owns a house in Moorpark, which is in another district. To qualify for the residency deadline of March 17, 2010, she rented an apartment on Ashmore Circle in Thousand Oaks. Audra told the Ventura County Star that she rented the apartment in late January 2010.
Parks has serious doubts about Audra’s intention to be a Thousand Oaks resident. “It is very questionable with her renting an apartment,” Parks said. “She signed an affidavit that this is her permanent address, and it is kind of thumbing her nose at everybody. You can only have one permanent address.”
Public records show that Audra Strickland is the sole owner of a single-family home on Kernvale Avenue in Moorpark, which she purchased in 2005 from her husband, Tony. On the same day, Tony executed an interspousal agreement to transfer the property to Audra as her sole and separate property. This distinction is important in the realm of community property. But when a real estate specialist and a family law attorney were asked about the significance of the transfer, both were perplexed and both said they had never heard of a transfer like that in any other circumstances. They both replied that it just seemed odd.
According to state tax records, Audra Strickland has taken the homeowners exemption for the Moorpark home and there are no indications that it has been put on the market for sale. Additionally, state law provides that residents who want to take a homeowner’s exemption, which cuts property taxes by $70 annually, may only use that exemption for one property, which is required to be their primary residence.
Parke Skelton is a longtime political consultant and represented Hannah-Beth Jackson in 2008 in her Senate race against Tony Strickland. He also represents incumbent state Controller John Chiang in the current race against Tony, just as he did for the 2006 contest between Chiang and Tony. Skelton is familiar with many of the campaign rules and regulations.
Skelton explained the homeowner’s exemption. “If they take a homeowner’s exemption on a property, they are swearing under penalty of perjury that they live there,” Skelton said. “That’s their residence. People can have more than one residence but they can take only one homeowner’s exemption. In election law, the term of art is ‘domicile’ and that’s about intent. To see intent, see if the homeowner’s exemption was removed from the property in Moorpark.” As of early May, it had not been removed from the Moorpark house.
The Debate debate
It’s difficult to know where a candidate stands on issues when he or she does not speak directly to the public. Position papers aside, which are usually written by staffers, voters have questions for the candidates. A debate is the traditional forum for the voters to size up the candidates side by side.
Audra has made one appearance with Parks in front of some voters on April 30, at the Westlake Village Inn, but the engagement was strictly limited to Republicans. The supervisor position is nonpartisan, and that appearance excluded a large chunk of the voter population. A debate had been scheduled by the League of Women Voters for May 13, and both candidates had agreed to the date and format. But 10 days before the debate, Audra backed out.
Parks posted a narrative on her campaign Web site: “Audra Strickland reneged on her commitment saying she didn’t know how few Thursdays there were before the election and that she preferred to spend her time elsewhere. She also said the league wasn’t giving enough time to the candidates to answer questions. The league [then] offered to lengthen the time for answers.”
The locally televised event took place on May 13 at the Thousand Oaks City Council Forum Theater. Parks attended but Audra sent a representative. Instead of appearing at the debate, Audra set up a “meet and greet” that day at the home of one of her supporters.
That event was arranged just a few days before the scheduled debate and several days after Audra had withdrawn from the debate. The general public has had no opportunity to hear Audra debate or to ask her questions.
As of press time, another debate has been scheduled by Strickland for Friday, May 28 at the Thousand Oaks City Hall. Strickland has insisted that Rick Lemmo, the supporter who hosted the meet-and-greet on the night of the League of Woman Voters debate, be the moderator. Parks, who has suggested five substitutes for Lemmo as moderator, has not yet agreed to participate
Both Stricklands have been exposed to Sacramento Republican politics for the past several years. The current collapse of the state’s entire financial foundation has happened during that time. Ever since the state Constitution was amended to require a two-thirds vote in order to raise taxes, the minority has had control of the budget through its power to prevent a budget from passing. This year, as in numerous previous years, the state is once again hovering on the brink of insolvency.
Yet in a recent press release, Tony opined on the real root of the fiscal disaster. “There’s a reason why we have an ongoing budget problem, and it’s because people are fleeing the state because they’re being over-taxed.”
Follow the money
Cal-Access on the secretary of state’s Web site allows you to view all of the candidates’ reported campaign contributions, donations to others, and expenditures. Major donors, political action committees, political parties and ballot measures are also there. This is where voters can get a much more accurate reading on where special interests are spending their money. It is also a window into the competency and transparency of any one candidate. Warning: Careful inspection of these records is only for the stout-hearted. Sorting through the 14 different campaign committees that the Stricklands have used at various times requires great patience and focus. But the effort can be rewarding.
Political consultant Skelton was posed a hypothetical question about a voter contributing $100 to candidate X and the expectation that the money will be used to pay for that candidate’s campaign.
“Well, that’s a rather naïve assumption, isn’t it?” Skelton said. “When people contribute money, they can expect the candidate to use it to further their political interests. And if that’s contributing to other candidates as a way of building an electoral base, particularly institutions where people are contributing to incumbents who don’t really have a contested race on the horizon. A lot of the time, people want to contribute to an incumbent even though they know the incumbent may be running for some other office and may transfer the money. But they don’t want to get involved in the other race for whatever reason, but the fact that they are contributing to the incumbent’s committee for the office they currently hold gives them plausible deniability.” The contributors can claim they could not have foreseen that the candidate would use the contribution for a different purpose.
Some of the campaign contribution rules are quite complicated. Back in 2000, there was another committee for Tony called Strickland Leadership Fund. According to public records, on October 16, 2000, $25,000 was placed in the Strickland Leadership Fund and was contributed by his Strickland For Assembly fund. A note accompanied this entry: “This check was intended for Assembly was inadvertently dep (sic) in Leadership.” Still confused on which committee gets which checks, on June 18, 2001, Strickland For Assembly contributed $500 to Strickland Leadership Fund with this note: “Not a contribution. Check deposited in wrong account.” (Secretary of State Web site, Cal-Access, Committees, Strickland Leadership Fund)
According to MAPLight.org, 79 percent of all campaign funds raised by California lawmakers between January 2007 and March 2010 were from out of their districts. That means almost four out of every five dollars did not come from the legislators’ direct constituents.
The same organization revealed the top industries that have contributed to the Stricklands from March 18, 2008, to March 17, 2010.
For Tony, the top five industries were: 1) real estate developers and subdividers, 2) property and casualty insurance, 3) securities, commodities and investments, 4) Native American tribes and governing units, and 5) attorneys and law firms.
For Audra, the top five industries were: 1) property and casualty insurance, 2) accident and health insurance, 3) Native American tribes and governing units, 4) landscaping and excavation services, and 5) real estate developers and subdividers.
“Audra Strickland is notorious for the special interest money she gets from casinos, tobacco, oil and developers,” Parks said. “It is a large amount of money and the sources are unsavory. I hope that voters will see that her smear campaign against me is coming from Exxon, Chevron, Sempra, Pechanga the building industry, and other special interests. We don’t need that kind of Sacramento politics in Ventura County.”