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June 14, 2021

Councilman refunds part of payment, admits breaking ethics law

Councilman Doug Emerson on Wednesday admitted he violated state ethics rules and amended a filing with the city to reflect that he reimbursed half of $4,650 he reported receiving from a solar company for his July 2011 trip to China.

Emerson amended his Form 700 Statement of Economic Interest to say he was paid $2,325 by CleanFocus Energy for the trip, City Clerk Geri Johnson confirmed. It came a day after a Free Lance story revealed Emerson violated Fair Political Practices Commission rules that restrict gifts to elected officials.

Emerson in a letter sent to the newspaper Wednesday said accepting his wife’s portion of the reimbursement was a mistake. The reimbursement exceeded FPPC gift limits, while violations can result in fines of up to $5,000. 

“Regarding the issue of my wife’s travel, I admit I made a mistake,” Emerson wrote in the letter. “However it was an honest mistake and, in no way, was I attempting to evade FPPC regulations. If that were the case, I never would have reported the reimbursement on my 700 form.”

In his letter, he did not broach the remaining $2,325 paid by CleanFocus for his half of the expenses, while that amount far exceeds the FPPC gift limit of $420 annually from a single source. Emerson also wrote he is remaining in the mayor’s race, days after announcing he would withdraw if he had violated any state ethics rules in accepting payment for the China trip.

Emerson in a brief interview Wednesday reiterated his contention the $2,325 was allowable because he provided value for a service. He declined to comment when asked whether he believed he met the exceptions provided in the law that would allow for travel reimbursements to elected officials, and whether he had talked to the FPPC about the matter.

“I’m not answering anymore questions,” he said. “You have my response.”

CleanFocus reimbursed Emerson for the couple’s travel, lodging, visas, taxicab rides to and from the airport, and three days per diem for food and beverages. They stayed an additional three days, but Emerson has said he funded the extra lodging, meals and other related costs.

He initially filed the Form 700 statement in March – elected officials and candidates are required to do so annually – and listed the $4,650 payment from CleanFocus Energy as travel income. The councilman previously denied violating any FPPC rules.

CleanFocus Energy, which has offices in Sunnyvale and China, had requested he speak at the Beijing seminar where the business was trying to recruit investors for California projects through the EB-5 federal program allowing permanent visas to foreigners who invest $500,000 into American companies. Emerson has said he spoke for about 25 minutes – translation included – and spent time preparing beforehand and answering questions, along with company executives, after a series of speeches.

He was referred to the CleanFocus firm by Claude Leglise, one of two partners in ClearSpot Energy, the company with which Hollister council members in January 2010 approved a 30-year, multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract to power the wastewater treatment plant using solar. Emerson was the most outspoken council supporter of the city’s sewer-solar partnership.

Fellow mayoral candidate Marty Richman initially informed the newspaper Emerson’s filing included the $4,650 reimbursement from CleanFocus. Richman is a former columnist and editorial board member for the Free Lance, and had expressed concern about a possible connection between CleanFocus and ClearSpot.

“My concern remains about whether Councilmember Emerson should have taken the trip in the first place,” Richman said.

Emerson and ClearSpot’s two principals have stressed that the two solar companies have no prior or planned business relationship.

“To speculate that my trip was some ‘reward’ or ‘thank you’ is pretty far-fetched,” Emerson wrote.

Emerson in his letter remained supportive of the ClearSpot solar project at the sewer plant. He said he will continue on as a candidate for mayor. So far, he is joined by Richman, Keith Snow and Ignacio Velazquez.

“I made a mistake, but I am not withdrawing from the mayoral race,” he wrote. “If elected, I will continue to pursue those issues which I believe are a benefit to the community.”

Emerson in the letter did not, however, address his own portion of the CleanFocus payment, while it appears he did not meet guidelines that would exempt his $2,325 reimbursement from the $420 gift limit.

As for those exemptions, under “Exceptions,” the law says an elected official could accept such travel reimbursement without limits “so long as” the speech is for official agency business or the payment is made by a government entity. Emerson did not speak on behalf of the city, which did not fund any of the trip.

Under the “Reportable Payments” section, the law says travel is not subject to the gift limit if it is “reasonably necessary in connection with a bona fide business, trade, or profession” with which the official is associated. Emerson is not linked with the solar industry in any professional capacity.

Look back for more, including reaction.

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