Council member facing scrutiny by state

Conflict-of-interest claim against Chula Vista’s Cardenas

By Tammy Murga


State election regulators are investigating allegations that Chula Vista Councilmember Andrea Cardenas violated conflict-of-interest and economic-interest disclosure laws.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission on Friday notified Laura Wilkinson Sinton, who lodged the complaint in February, that it will look into the accusations she made against Cardenas.

Wilkinson Sinton is a local cannabis business owner who sued the city in 2020 over a permit application for her business Caligrown.

She asserts in the FPPC complaint that Cardenas has not publicly disclosed in her statements of economic interest the cannabis companies represented by Grassroots Resources, the political consulting firm that employs Cardenas.

In 2021, Cardenas told a potential client that Grassroots had only independent contractors and no employees. In her economic interest filing for March 2022, however, she reported being director of community engagement for Grassroots and she said that because she is paid a salary, she was not required to disclose clients. But this year, she reported in April that she is an independent contractor for the consulting company.

State disclosure laws require that public officials report the name of each source of income aggregating $500 or more. Cardenas’ brother, Jesus Cardenas, who established Grassroots, has named clients in his Form 700, which includes several cannabis companies. State conflict-of-interest regulations also prohibit officials from approving government contracts in which the official has a financial interest.

The complaint says that Cardenas has failed to recuse herself from discussions made in closed session with the City Council and its counsel regarding “litigation the city was in or is in with other cannabis companies she does not represent (competitors to her clients). This is a direct and willful violation of financial conflict of interest.”

Cardenas did not respond to a request for comment. In a previous statement, she said that she had filed a request to dismiss the complaint because the claims “are false and inaccurate.”

The complaint also comes after months of closed session meetings attended by Cardenas, according to minutes of city meetings, to discuss cannabis lawsuits, including Caligrown’s case against the city.

An appeals court ruled in July that Chula Vista “acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner” when it rejected Caligrown’s applications to open dispensaries in Districts 1, 3 and 4. The court ordered the city to reprocess them, but it has yet to do so. The parties remain in litigation as a result.

FPPC investigations can lead to dropping some or all allegations made in a complaint, or they could find more, including criminal activity, said spokesperson Jay Wierenga. In this case, the complaint names the Chula Vista City Attorney’s Office as a respondent along with Cardenas. The FPPC said that “at this time, there is insufficient evidence of a violation” by the City Attorney’s Office.

The Commission also underscored in its letter to Wilkinson Sinton that it has not “made any determination about the validity of the allegation(s)” she made.

Cardenas was also found in 2021 to have violated local election laws by accepting contributions above the permitted limit. The contributions regarded a Grassroots partner and campaign print and mail company, TMC Direct.