Kicking Back

An audit forces City Councilman Jose Ibarra to return $11,118 in city campaign matching funds

Third-term City Councilman Jose Ibarra is just 34, but he is an old-school pol who follows mentor Raul Grijalva in showing his friends and volunteers the love.

Ibarra, a Democrat, showered friends, relatives and supporters with such love and money--including taxpayer-provided campaign cash--that he was forced to return more than $11,118 in expenses that were rejected by city auditors.

Included was $4,000 for a catered, post-election meal for 250 volunteers. That worked out to $16 a head for Southwest Caterers, for a party held after Ibarra defeated Republican Armando Rios in the Nov. 4 election for the westside Ward 1 seat.

Also disallowed was $3,678 in charges related to the Ibarra campaign's rental of a small westside office owned since August by Ibarra's campaign chairman, Jose Rincon, and Rincon's wife, Adriana Rincon.

The Rincons, real estate agents who invested $82,000 in the property at 1012 W. St. Mary's Road, were forced to reimburse the city.

Kathleen Cates, the Ibarra campaign bookkeeper, was overpaid $2,320, and campaign manager Piper Weinberg was overpaid $1,120, according to the city audit. Both were paid amounts that "exceeded fair market value," and both reimbursed the city on April 23 as part of a settlement Ibarra reached with City Clerk Kathleen Detrick, the administrator of the city's campaign finance program.

Candidates like Ibarra, who seek public matching funds, agree to spending limits and must have fund raising and expenses audited. S.E. Clark & Co., the city's contract auditor for the matching funds program, found several holes in Ibarra's reports. Documentation, simple receipts and contracts were missing; Ibarra, for example, had no written rental agreement with the Rincons.

"We didn't disagree," Ibarra said Monday as the City Council finished a study session. "We didn't dispute the findings, and we gave the money back."

The rejected expenditures, Ibarra said, were the result of a shift in focus of his campaign and the timing of the volunteer party and other payments. He concedes that they were late because they occurred after he wrapped his election victory.

"We were not going to raise a lot of money on purpose," Ibarra said. Indeed, Ibarra told the Weekly--before political enemies took aim against him with Rios last year--that he was not going to raise very much money.

Ibarra did not anticipate needing to launch a media-intensive campaign with radio and television buys to counter the air attack from Rios, a political neophyte.

Ibarra reverted to the style perfected by Grijalva, the first-term congressman for whom Ibarra worked when Grijalva was in his first and second terms on the Board of Supervisors. Ibarra said he also borrowed from the campaign playbook of Dan Eckstrom, the former 15-year supervisor.

"You know the school I come from," Ibarra said. "If a person is willing to give me their days, to walk in 105-degree heat to go door to door, then I'm going to give them the best. I'm going to treat them right with food and cold drinks."

Ibarra's reimbursement is the largest made by a candidate in the 16-year history of the matching-fund program that typically operates on $300,000 each election cycle. The $11,118 represents 43 percent of the $26,135 in city funds that Ibarra's campaign received. The campaign raised another $38,816 from contributors.

Many of Ibarra's big-ticket expenditures were even less formal than those written on the back of envelopes. Many transactions were "verbal," including the $500 he paid his brother, Adam--a campaign "volunteer"--to put up signs.

The Rincons also didn't bother with a written lease, but instead "made a verbal agreement" to lease the converted home to Ibarra's campaign for $800 a month.

In a letter to Detrick that sought to justify the $3,678, Jose Rincon also conceded that he and his wife fronted the Ibarra campaign the water, electricity and phone. Rincon and his wife also contributed cash to Ibarra's campaign, including $500 from Adriana Rincon--an amount that exceeded by $150 that allowed by state law.

Jose Rincon told Detrick that he and his wife "would review the property a week before the last date of each lease payment to see the condition of rental. We started this practice so that we would not be left holding the bag of a rental with significant damages after the tenants move out and cannot be found."

Smart move.

Rincon took another page to list the damage done by the Ibarra campaign, including damage to the wood floor, damage to two water spigots (listed by Rincon as "spikets") and damage to plaster and paint.

Plus, Rincon wrote, "the Ibarra 2003 campaign left huge amounts of trash behind from campaign literature that was not used, to paper plates, paper cups, soda and beer cans, paper, old signs, etc., which we agreed to haul to the landfill because of the large amount and the need to immediately clean the property."

The Pima County Democratic Party, which shared space at the Rincon property, paid the Ibarra campaign $800 on Nov. 3 for rent and utilities, according to a financial report the party filed.

Ibarra asserts that he saved the city money by not applying for more in matching funds.

His agreement, which includes reimbursement and affidavits attesting to problems with the expenditures and the resolution, helps avert any misdemeanor prosecution.

But it will provide more fodder for his political opponents, and for the under-oath Q&A that Michael Crawford, an attorney for a former Ibarra council staff member, will pursue. Crawford, a former appointed member of the city council, represents Cara Reid, who has filed a multi-million claim against Ibarra and the city. She alleges Ibarra defamed her by pointing the finger at her for $4,000 in water-bill payments his office could not account for.