FPPC opens investigation into Compton mayor over hero pay

By Emilie St. John

Contributing Writer

COMPTON — State election regulators are investigating allegations that Mayor Emma Sharif may have violated conflict-of-interest laws.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) confirmed its office received a complaint regarding the mayor voting in favor of using federal funds received from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide hero pay for city employees and took the pay herself along with all members of the City Council,  the city clerk and city treasurer.

“A sworn complaint against [Compton Mayor] Emma Sharif was opened into an investigation by our enforcement division,” said Jay Wierenga, communications director for the FPPC.

Sharif was notified about the investigation July 18 and declined a request for comment on the matter.

According to Bjorn Dodd, assistant head deputy in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Division, his office received a complaint on the matter which was then referred to the FPPC.“The Public Integrity Division received a complaint on June 23, 2022, [regarding complaints about Compton elected officials taking hero pay from federal funds received under the American Rescue Plan Act],” Dodd said. “On September 12, 2023, PID received a request from the FPPC for authorization to investigate the matter pursuant to Penal Code section 1097.1(b).  PID granted that request on September 27, 2023. Accordingly, PID is not currently reviewing the matter pending the FPPC’s investigation.”

The penal code cited overlaps with Government Code 1090 which forbids elected officials from benefiting financially from their vote.

According to documents released by the FPPC under a public records request, the complaint was initiated by former City Manager Craig Cornwell, who was appointed city attorney in the city of Merced on Nov. 20.

Cornwell initiated a lawsuit against the city in March 2022 after the council failed to approve a contract extension for him to continue as city manager. It is unclear if his complaint is in retaliation for his dismissal.

In March 2022, the City Council approved a resolution authorizing unclassified employees to receive so-called hero pay from funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act. The city charter defines unclassified employees as all elected officials, the city manager, assistant city manager, the city manager’s secretary, commissioners and temporary and part-time employees. 

The resolution stipulated that [ayment was not to exceed $15,000. Sharif allegedly received checks for $7,448 each on May 15 and Dec. 31 of 2022.

Councilman Jonathan Bowers and Councilwoman Lillie Darden also received the funds. By voting to authorize herself to receive the funds, Sharif allegedly violated state, city and federal law, according to the FPPC.

A final ruling from the U.S. Treasury Department in early 2022, on eligible uses of American Rescue Plan Act funds, specifically prohibited elected officials “steering funds to projects in which they have a financial interest or using funds to pay themselves premium pay.”

Documents released by the city indicate that all of the city’s elected officials took the pay despite the city charter setting their compensation at $600 per month.

This is not the first time a local mayor has been investigated for financially benefiting from their vote.

Former Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in 2010 after he was found to have financially benefited from his vote.

The criminal case against Dorn revolved around a city loan program originally intended to help city administrators afford to live in the city. In June 2004, Dorn voted with the majority of the City Council to extend the program to elected officials. Five months later, he obtained a 30-year loan with a variable interest rate of 2.39%, far less than the market rate.

The loan became an issue in 2007 during his election for a third term. He repaid the money in October 2006.

Dorn claimed the Inglewood city attorney advised him that the loan was legal.

Part of the U.S. Treasury Department’s ruling appears to indicate that elected officials who received the monies prior to Jan. 6 will not be asked to give it back.

It is unclear if Compton elected officials will be required to return the money since they received it well after the ruling was provided to local government agencies.

“In the past, we have also concluded our cases with penalties, and then either the district attorney or attorney general, or others, may feel the need or see the need to further prosecute,” the FPPC’s Wierenga. “We have jurisdiction for administrative and civil law, not criminal.”

The FPPC and district attorney’s office confirmed no complaints were received about the other members of the council who voted for and ultimately received the payments.

Emilie St. John is a freelance journalist covering the areas of Carson, Compton, Inglewood and Willowbrook. Send tips to her at emiliesaintjohn@gmail.com.