Burger chain manager caught using ‘straw donors’ to support ex-sheriff Alex Villanueva’s 2018 campaign

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Burger chain manager caught using ‘straw donors’ to support ex-sheriff Alex Villanueva’s 2018 campaign

Homepage News, California Politics

Keri Blakinger

January 10, 2024

A hamburger chain manager accused of using straw donors to repeatedly contribute to former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanuevas in 2018 has agreed to pay a $50,000 fine for laundering campaign money, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

The state watchdog said in a filing in January that investigators found no evidence that Villanueva was aware of the money laundering scheme. But commission records show the former sheriff, his 2018 campaign and his then-campaign treasurer agreed to pay a total of $7,500 for violating reporting requirements and failing to return some of the money.

Under the settlement


which the committee will formally vote on later this month


Burger chain manager Manuel Gomez will plead guilty to ten counts of laundering campaign money.

The other three parties — Villanueva, his treasurer and his campaign — will plead guilty to two charges related to reporting omissions. Lawyers for Gomez and


former campaign treasurer Cine Ivery did not respond to requests for comment. Brian Hildreth, who represents Villanueva, said the language of the agreement made it crystal clear that Villanueva was not aware of the plan.

A spokesperson for the FPPC said the committee does not comment on ongoing cases. If the proposed deal is approved, committee records show it will be the first time since 2017 that the committee has approved a settlement involving multiple counts of campaign money laundering.

The complaint that sparked the investigation was filed in October 2018. At the time, Los Angeles County’s local cap prohibited individual donors from contributing more than $1,500 to a campaign in a single calendar year. The complaint highlighted a handful of donations made by various Tams Super Burgers locations,

together with

several chefs and waiters who worked there.

The fact that multiple hourly employees from Tams Super Burgers and other related companies have made a maximum contribution of $1,500 to Villanueva’s campaign indicates that employees are incentivized to contribute to Villanueva, including the possibility of the companies reimbursing employees for their political contributions, the unsigned complaint alleged.

Both the first complaint and a similar one


submitted days later, raised concerns


The business owner, then a reserve deputy and previously a supporter of former Sheriff Lee Baca and the Villanueva campaign, may have violated the state’s Political Reform Act.

Around the same time, the LA County District Attorney’s Office opened an investigation after receiving a complaint from the campaign of Villanueva’s opponent, then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell. After interviewing several donors and obtaining arrest warrants for nearly two dozen bank accounts, prosecutors arrived

said in one


that they

found no evidence that the owner of the hamburger chain had committed a crime. However, some employees told this to the researchers


their boss Gomez had asked them for a donation.

Investigators searched Gomez’s home in 2019 and found items related to the Villanueva campaign, but nothing that prosecutors considered incriminating. In the spring of 2022, the public prosecutor’s office decided not to prosecute the case.


Rosecutors said the statute of limitations had expired on several potential charges and most donors


said they were only encouraged to donate, but Gomez did not give them any money to do so.

However, the state commission continued with its case. According to the proposed settlement


which a commission spokesperson said is based on agreements between all parties


Gomez maxed out his own donations to Villanueva’s campaign in August 2018 with a $1,500 contribution. Subsequently, investigators discovered that he donated fourteen more times, using his associates, friends and family as middlemen or straw donors.


he provided cash.

Many of the middlemen could not speak English, according to the agreed settlement. Some could not write in English. Nearly all of the contribution checks were completed in Gomez’s handwriting.

The 14 donations under others’ names totaled $21,000, according to committee records.

Although Villanueva’s campaign noted Gomez’s initial contribution, the campaign statement before the election omitted important information required by law, including the occupational and employer fields. That information, the settlement said, would have helped illustrate the relationship between Gomez and the workers who donated to Villanueva.

If that information is missing for a donor, candidates must repay the contribution within 60 days,

what something

the Villanueva campaign failed with Gomez’s donation and another.

Although most of the laundered checks were written in Gomez’s handwriting, and many of the middlemen who acted as maximum contributors were listed in Villanueva’s campaign files as cooks/cashiers at hamburger restaurants and as waiters, Villanueva and Ivery claim they knew nothing about the money was laundered, the settlement says. Accordingly, the checks were received at a very busy time: the last few months before the general election, when many other contributions were being received.

In a Tuesday evening email to The Times, Villanueva echoed

his lack of awareness about the origin of the money


“Unfortunately, we too have become victims due to the actions of the person involved,” he wrote. “It was disappointing to hear that the D




The firm’s office pursued this matter for five years because we were denied the opportunity to address the administrative error in a timely manner.”

The agreed settlement is on the


Agenda for the January 18 meeting, at which point the five-member

committee panel



approve. According to the committee spokesperson, the proposed fines have already been paid.


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