Dec. 4 2013 09:09 AM

State watchdog and Legislature move to curb Judge Gary Kreep's dirty tricks

red kreep
Judge Gary Kreep
Illustration by Adam Vieyra

The law is finally catching up with Judge Gary Kreep.

The far-right zealot and political profiteer—perhaps best known for leading the "Birther" movement's crusade against President Barack Obama—won a seat on the San Diego County Superior Court bench in the summer of 2012. In a series of stories, CityBeat drew back the skin of Kreep's political machine, revealing a complex circulatory system of payments that may have run afoul of state campaign laws and the judicial ethics code.

Last month, the state watchdog that investigates political-ethics cases determined that Kreep broke the Political Reform Act twice when he failed to report payments he made to, and received from, a controversial campaign committee already under intense scrutiny from the California Legislature for its deceptive practices. The Fair Political Practices Commission, as U-T San Diego first reported, let Kreep off with a formal warning that the next time he'll face a penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation. In exchange, Kreep amended his official reports to include the previously hidden transactions.

While the warning may seem like a slap on the wrist, the definitive finding could lend fuel to future investigations.

For decades, Kreep led the United States Justice Foundation, a nonprofit law office and advocacy organization rooted in a far-right interpretation of the Constitution. Under Kreep's direction, USJF targeted top Democratic officials—including Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama— with lawsuits alleging fringe conspiracies. Kreep also made a name for himself in the so-called "family values" anti-gay and anti-abortion movements and served as general counsel to one of the most militant factions of the Minutemen.

Also for decades, Kreep's operated a sophisticated propaganda machine that made him, and his cohorts, wealthy. Through numerous political committees, Kreep and his allies would send out hate-mongering mass mailings to raise funds to send out even more outrageous mail.

On the federal level, the political-action committees (or PACs) included groups like Justice-PAC, Beat Obama PAC and the Republican Majority Campaign PAC, for which Kreep previously listed himself as chairman. Kreep and his crew took generous cuts of the haul: Randy Goodwin collected payments for accounting services; James Lacy, who runs the political-services firm Landslide Communications, collected payments for mailers and robocalls; and Kreep received payments for legal services, as well as for renting space in his office.

Goodwin also served as treasurer for Kreep's judge campaign and channeled money from the various federal PACs to Kreep's war chest. Meanwhile, Lacy's company operates a number of slate-mail organizations, which send out direct mail promoting numerous candidates, which paid Kreep as a consultant.

Sound confusing? It was enough to befuddle Kreep, too. 

Through the California Public Records Act, CityBeat obtained the FPPC's investigative file on Kreep, which included correspondence from Kreep's attorney. According to the letter, Kreep couldn't remember which committees he chaired and had to retract his disclosure that he led the Beat Obama PAC.

Further complicating things, his attorney in the matter was Lacy, the same individual engaged in the transactions under investigation, who has a record of breaking campaign laws. The FPPC found Lacy failed to properly disclose $714,000 in payments made by two other PACs during the 2012 election cycle. In April 2013, Lacy settled with the Federal Elections Commission in two cases, seemingly unrelated to Kreep, in which Lacy's committees committed multiple violations of campaign law.

Neither Kreep nor Lacy responded to multiple inquiries about the seeming conflict of interest, or any other question.

Kreep's involvement in the political groups raises major questions under the California Code of Judicial Ethics, which prohibits judges and judicial candidates from leading partisan political organizations. Kreep has claimed he formally resigned his chairmanships of the committees approximately one week after he began his campaign, and Goodwin filed a declaration that Kreep maintained no leadership role in the PACs' operations. However, financial records indicate there's more to the story.

Since he formally resigned in February 2012, Kreep has collected more than $72,000 from Goodwin's PACs for "legal services," "rent," "meeting expenses" and "consulting services." The most recent payment from the Republican Majority Campaign to Kreep was for legal services logged in May 2013, long after he had assumed office.

The FPPC found that Kreep had channeled his judicial campaign's money to a group operated by Lacy called the California Public Safety Voter Guide and then collected a total of $34,000 in consulting fees from that organization. The transactions were not clearly disclosed until the FPPC launched is investigation.

The California Public Safety Voter Guide and related slate mailers operated by Lacy have been at the center of controversy for pretending to be endorsements from public-safety groups when, in reality, no such relationship existed. Several organizations, such as California Professional Firefighters, the Los Angeles Police Protective League and Common Cause, complained to the Legislature about the mailers. In response, lawmakers passed a law to force new disclosures by slate mailers that use faux public-safety logos—including an actual number of members. Lacy is challenging the law in court, arguing it would be a violation of his First Amendment rights if he had to disclose that his organizations had "0 members."

San Diego attorney Len Simon led a group of 14 attorneys in filing the initial complaint against Kreep, based in part on CityBeat's reporting. On Facebook, Lacy downplayed the FPPC's findings, but Simon feels vindicated.

"We filed the complaint because we thought Judge Kreep's disclosure statement did not comply with the law," Simon said in an email. "The FPPC and Judge Kreep appear to have agreed with us, and Judge Kreep filed corrected disclosures. We were a little disappointed that the FPPC did not look more closely as to whether some of the transactions were structured to evade the law. We wish they had pushed a little deeper into that."

Nevertheless, the FPPC's conclusion that Kreep broke the law could fuel further investigation by the California Commission on Judicial Performance, which enforces the ethics rules affecting judges, including the one that states: "Judges and candidates for judicial office shall comply with all applicable election, election campaign, and election campaign fundraising laws and regulations."

Email or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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