For someone who oversees the education of 60,000 students—among the largest pupil populations in California—Santa Ana school board member John Palacio has an embarrassing problem: he can barely write.
Specifically, every California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Form 460 campaign contribution report Palacio has filed since he first ran for office in 1998 is illegible—or at least illegible to anyone other than Palacio himself. Not even the Orange County Registrar of Voters—which, at the Weekly's prodding, recently forced Palacio to re-submit his most recent Form 460—can get him to write legibly.
The fact that nobody but Palacio can read his forms is important because Palacio stands accused of inserting himself into the Santa Ana Unified School District's (SAUSD) selection of architects in order to raise cash for his election campaigns. His unintelligible 460 forms are critical to unearthing any possible quid pro quo.
Despite raising more than $145 million for new schools when Santa Ana voters passed Measure C three years ago, SAUSD's board of trustees has failed to build a single new school.
Former SAUSD officials blame Palacio and fellow board member Nativo Lopez for delaying the construction of new schools by forcing staff to interview dozens of potential architects, including many who ultimately contributed cash to both board members' political campaigns (see “Old School Politics,” Jan. 3).
In March 2000 alone, for example, the following architects made contributions averaging $250 to Lopez: McLarand, Vasquez, Emsiek N Partners; GKK Corp.; Seeyle, Stevenson, Value N Knecht; Villanueva-Armoni Architects; Jubany Architecture; TBP Architecture; and Anderson Architecture.
Last year, investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office and the SAUSD determined that neither Lopez nor Palacio committed any wrongdoing. They would have had no problem researching the paper trail concerning Lopez and his contributors because Lopez helpfully typed up his FPPC 460 forms. But how could investigators exonerate Palacio, who hastily scribbled the names and addresses of all his contributors?
After reviewing all six years' worth of Palacio's campaign-contribution forms without being able to find a single page of legible writing, we called the Orange County Registrar of Voters office to complain. Christina Avila, a campaign-disclosure employee at the Registrar's office, told us we weren't alone in our inability to decipher Palacio's penmanship.
According to Avila, the Registrar had already received other complaints about Palacio. She said her office would ask him to re-submit his most recent Form 460, thus allowing him 14 days to respond with a legible list of his contributors. But weeks went by without any response from Palacio, so Avila said she called him again.
Finally, nearly two months after he won re-election, Palacio sent the Registrar another copy of his contributors' list. “But it came back the same way,” Avila recalled, meaning that Palacio had once again decided not to bother typing his list. This time, instead of using lowercase letters, Palacio scribbled the names of his contributors in capital letters that appear to be an ancient Babylonian cuneiform script.
According to Avila, Palacio also sent the Registrar a note blaming his terrible handwriting on the fact that he's left-handed. If true, perhaps Palacio should consider writing with his left hand.
Avila claimed that because there is no county ordinance requiring campaign-disclosure forms to actually be legible, there was nothing further her office could do. Indeed, the closest thing to a legibility requirement the Registrar has for candidates is an instruction to “type or print in ink.” Nonetheless, Avila called the FPPC to see if they could press Palacio to type up his forms. But the FPPC refused to get involved. “They actually tried to talk me out of filing a complaint,” she said. “They said somebody else would have to write to them.”
After talking to Avila, we called the FPPC. Andy Domek of the agency's press office refused to answer any questions about Palacio but pointed us to Section 18110(2c) of the California Fair Political Practices Act, which states that all candidates must ensure that their statements “are legible, are printed in ink or typewritten, and that readable reproductions can be made.”
Domek also told us how we could file a complaint, which we did. Now it's up to the FPPC to decide whether Palacio's penmanship is so bad that it violates the agency's legibility guidelines. Depending on how the agency rules, Palacio could receive a substantial fine, and—perhaps more important—he could be forced to actually sit down with a typewriter for a few hours. Only then will the mystery of who gave money to Palacio be solved—not to mention how two local investigations could clear him of wrongdoing without having any idea how to read the evidence.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).