Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva fined for 2018 campaign finance violations

ByMarc Brown and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Thursday, January 11, 2024
Former Sheriff Villanueva fined for 2018 campaign finance violations
Former Sheriff Alex Villanueva agreed to pay a fine for campaign finance violations after a burger restaurant chain manager used "straw donors" to donate an additional 14 times under the names of cooks and cashiers.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he inadvertently broke the law in a campaign money laundering case that dates back to his 2018 run for sheriff.

Villanueva, his then-campaign treasurer Cine Ivery, and a donor named Manuel Gomez have agreed to settle an investigation by California's Fair Political Practices Commission, the state watchdog that oversees campaign financing and government ethics laws.

Gomez, who manages a string of restaurants including multiple Tam's Burgers locations, will pay a $50,000 fine for using "straw donors" to repeatedly contribute to Villanueva's campaign under the names of friends, family and several cooks and cashiers at the burger joints he managed.

Villanueva and Ivery will pay a $7,500 fine for omitting key information required by law on campaign finance statements about who Gomez worked for - information the FPPC says would have helped illustrate the relationship between Gomez and the straw donors.

"It's a clerical error," Villanueva told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. "It's very common in large campaigns and unfortunately we did not catch it."

Gomez will admit guilt to 10 counts of campaign money laundering. He did not respond to a request for comment from Eyewitness News.

In 2018, Gomez donated the maximum amount to Villanueva's campaign -- $1,500. But then he used straw donors to contribute fourteen more times - under fourteen different names - $1,500 per donation.

Former LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to testify on deputy gangs

After years of resisting subpoenas, former L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has agreed to testify under oath about deputy gangs.

The FPPC filing states that Gomez supplied the straw donors with cash to reimburse them for the donations, which totaled $21,000.

"Many of the intermediaries could not speak English," the FPPC settlement says. "Some could not write in English. Nearly all of the contribution checks were filled out in the handwriting of Gomez."

"Well, obviously it's against the law. You're not supposed to do that." Villanueva said. "The point is he made that decision on his own. And, again, we're a victim of it, just like the public was."

Eyewitness News caught up with Villanueva at an event for his current campaign to unseat L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn. Villanueva lost his reelection bid for sheriff in 2022 to former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

Villanueva said he doesn't know Gomez and has no idea why Gomez would have broken the law to donate extra money to his 2018 campaign.

"I've never met him. I don't even know what he looks like," Villanueva said.

Gomez's boss and the owner of Tam's Burgers is Chris Vovos. Eyewitness News asked Villanueva who Vovos was to him.

"He's a supporter," Villanueva replied. "There's nothing nefarious about that."

Villanueva said he's never asked Vovos about Gomez's donations.

Vovos did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The FPPC filing states: "There is no evidence that the Villanueva campaign knew about the laundering scheme" and that "Villanueva and Ivery claim they did not know any funds were laundered."

The settlement will not be finalized until the FPPC commission votes on it at their meeting on Jan. 18.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer