Arcadia council candidate gets controversial $26K donation from local developer

Pasadena Star-News | March 24, 2016 – 

ARCADIA – A local developer that has been trying to build on an Arcadia hillside for 15 years has spent $26,850 to support City Council candidate Bob Harbicht’s campaign, according to campaign finance records.

Instead of donating directly to Harbicht’s campaign, Nevis Capital LLC, owned by Ta-Jen Lee, routed the money through the California Homeowners Association, a political action committee in Sacramento.

The PAC spent $15,000 on a mailer sent to voters this week asking Arcadians to “bullet vote,” or only cast one vote for Harbicht, even though there are two seats open. The PAC also spent $10,000 on online marketing for candidate, records show.

According to the Center for Election Science, some voters may choose to bullet vote because its easier to evaulate just one candiate out of a field of several. But bullet voting can also be employed as a form of tactical voting.

Open government advocate Gil Aguirre called using PACs for local politics a “new phenomenon” that obscures where campaign money may be coming from.

“That’s an incredible amount of money for a developer to be funneling to one candidate,” he said. “Obviously, the stakes are high in Arcadia.”

And the move has some residents concerned that Lee is trying to buy Harbicht’s vote on a future project. But Harbicht disagrees.

“I consider that an insult,” he said. “My vote isn’t for sale.”

Harbicht said he had no knowledge of the donation from Lee, and said he knows him only as an “acquaintance.” Lee has offices in Brea and El Monte, but over the years has developed several projects in Arcadia, with two in the pipeline right now.

Lee did not return calls for comment.

Harbicht is among six candidates locked in a contentious race for two seats on the City Council; Also running are April Verlato, Peter Amundson, Burton Brink, Sheng Chang and Paul Van Fleet.


In addition to the large donation from Nevis Capital LLC, Harbicht received approximately $30,000 in the months of January and February, of which $19,145 came from contributions of less than $100, according to campaign finance records.

Harbicht received $2,500 each from Santa Anita Park and Continental Assets Management, a developer who owns the Santa Anita Inn.

Verlato, an attorney, received the next highest amount at approximately $28,000.

She received several sizeable donations from residents and a few local business owners, including $5,000 from Thomas and Judith McKernan, a couple who also donated $5,000 to the Saving Arcadia PAC, which opposes “mansionization.”

Four neighbors in the Arcadia Highlands each donated $3,000 to her campaign.

“I just have a lot of support because they know how much money developers have contributed to other candidates in past campaigns and I believe they felt compelled to step up our game in order for the residents to be represented,” she said.

Verlato’s stance on “mansionization” is no secret to the community. In 2015, she was part of a group of citizens who filed a lawsuit against the city over two contested residential development projects, and in that same year, she also helped draft a resident-backed ballot initiative that aims to set significant restrictions on square footage. It is currently awaiting signature verification by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder.

Amundson, a business owner and former councilman, has loaned himself $20,000 to date. He has also received various smaller contributions amounting to approximately $5,000, according to finance statements.

Chang, a semi-retired physician and former councilman, also loaned himself $20,000 for his campaign. He received close to $9,500 from a few other physicians, including one who now lives in Taiwan.

Brink, a sergeant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, reported two donations amounting to $1,500.

Van Fleet did not file campaign finance statements as he is running a “grassroots” campaign, relying only on door-to-door marketing efforts.


In January, Lee sought approval from the council to subdivide a 90-acre parcel at 2111-2115 Canyon Road. He planned to build a home on about 12 acres and possibly work out a deal with the Boy Scouts of America for the rest of the land.

The project required grading the hillside to pave an access road, a driveway and building pad, but officials denied it, citing concerns over the impact from fires, flooding or mudslides on the area. The project would also have removed 32 mature oak trees, which are a protected species.

Lee has submitted multiple proposals to develop the property over the past 15 years, and has been denied every time.

Project proposals have varied from an 11-home subdivision to a tract of seven homes and, most recently, down to two homes, which Lee ultimately determined “would not be marketable.”

City Councilman Roger Chandler, too, received $2,000 from Lee in his 2014 campaign, along with several other contributions from local developers, designers and architects.

Chandler was the dissenting vote on Lee’s proposal in January.

In 2012, Lee also contributed $4,000 to former Councilman John Wuo’s campaign.

Wuo resigned in October amid intense scrutiny over his alleged endorsement of Gemcoin, a digital currency marketed in a suspected pyramid scheme that operated in Arcadia.

The company is now facing fraud charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The deadline to register online to vote in the April 12 election is Monday, March 28. Arcadia is holding an all mail-in-ballot election so voters need to return ballots to City Hall no later than April 12.

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