SAN DIEGO -- Despite chronic absenteeism and an allegation of sexual misconduct, labor leader Mickey Kasparian was allowed to stay on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee after an effort to expel him in September.
The next day, the party received a $10,000 contribution from Kasparian's union, one of the largest donations of 2017.
The party said that the timing of the payment was coincidental and the contribution from Kasparian's union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, was requested months earlier. But the sequence of events has raised questions among Kasparian's and the party's critics, who see the money as a way the union boss kept himself close to political leaders as he fought against allegations of boorish behavior.
"I think that the timing of the contribution is very suspicious," said Chris Lopez, a UFCW 135 member and frequent critic of Kasparian. "Also, as a union member, he never asked the membership if he could give $10,000 to the Democratic party. We feel that the membership should be aware of the contributions to Democrats to Republicans or anything.
"Now, finding out it's the day after he's absolved, it's very, very suspicious," said Lopez, a produce clerk, by phone. "I don't like it at all."
The exact timing of when the union made the payment is unknown. It might have been an instant electronic payment the day after the party decision. But it's also possible that the union sent a check by mail days before the decision.
Kasparian, the treasurer of the union's political action committee, did not return a request for comment. Critics said even a payment sent before the party decision would be suspect.
"The appearance of impropriety that comes with the timing of the donation in question is unfortunate and betrays a lack of political acumen. I'm disappointed that the party I love seems to be unable to square our values with our actions, locally," said Shawn VanDiver, a Democratic activist and the director of the San Diego Chapter of the Truman National Security Project.
The revelation that Local 135 donated to the Democratic Party was contained in finance records that became public last week, and comes as the nation discusses sexual misconduct by men in power and the people and institutions that protect them.
In Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, Democrats have purged allies and their own lawmakers who have been accused of sexual misconduct. In San Diego, the party has not taken similar steps to distance itself form Kasparian, who has been similarly accused of wrongdoing. Kasparian denies all the accusations.
Some Democratic officeholders and candidates, however, have said that they would not accept support from an organization if Kasparian is at its helm.
Jessica Hayes, chairwoman of the San Diego Democratic Party, said UFCW 135 was asked for a contribution well before questions of Kasparian's attendance record were raised and it was just a coincidence that the contribution arrived a day after she determined Kasparian hadn't violated any rules and that he could remain on the party's Central Committee.
"In early August, we invited numerous organizations to sponsor our County Convention in October," she said in a statement.
The controversy over Kasparian's status in the party began last year as the labor leader fought two lawsuits filed in late 2016. In one case Isabel Vasquez alleged Kasparian pressured her into a sexual relationship while she worked for him at Local 135. Kasparian has denied her allegations. That case was settled in January.
In the other complaint, Sandy Naranjo said she was fired from Local 135 in retaliation for a political stance taken by her husband's rival union. Kasparian denies those allegations as well. That case is ongoing.
In December Kasparian was sued a third time. In her complaint, Melody Godinez said that Kasparian groped her several times, once tried to get her to participate in group sex and, in one instance, pinned her to his sofa in his office. Kasparian denies those allegations and the case is ongoing.
Kasparian resigned from the Central Committee after the details of the third lawsuit were reported and said on a Facebook post that he was busy with union duties. He did not reference the allegations.
But back in September, a group of Democrats who were concerned about the lawsuits' allegations noticed that Kasparian missed seven meetings he was supposed to attend.
The party's rules say that members who miss three consecutive meetings or four over a calendar year are assumed to have resigned.
Seeing a way to expel the labor leader from the party's Central Committee on a technicality -- rather than having to address the allegations in the lawsuits -- Ricardo Ochoa, a Democratic activist, raised the attendance issue with the party's leadership, according to an email obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
In her response to Ochoa, Hayes determined that Kasparian hadn't forfeited his seat. He had an excuse for missing one of the meetings -- she didn't say what it was -- and she said she couldn't hold that absence against him.
Another meeting Kasparian missed didn't count either, she said, because the subcommittee lost its attendance records for a different meeting -- not the one Kasparian skipped.
"We cannot count January," Hayes wrote in response to Ochoa.
Ochoa declined to comment.
A day after Hayes determined Kasparian could stay in the party's inner circle, the Democratic Central Committee received $10,000 from Local 135, a donation that was larger than all but five contributions that Democrats received in 2017. It followed a $5,000 contribution the union gave in April, the party's campaign finance records show.
Hayes said that the contribution probably was made before questions about Kasparian's attendance were raised, and the check was drafted on Local 135's own schedule.
"A check we received on Sept. 6 was likely mailed a couple days prior and approved well before that," Hayes said. "Whatever the process was, there is clearly no connection with my later email exchange with a Central Committee member."
Hayes said she wasn't aware that the party would receive a contribution until weeks after it actually arrived.
The Union-Tribune surveyed 28 Democratic officeholders and candidates, asking a series of yes-or-no questions about Kasparian. Many declined to answer in that format. Of those who did, eight said he should resign from his union leadership position.
Six respondents said the party has not handled the allegations against him appropriately, while three said the party's action was appropriate.
Five Democrats said they would not accept an endorsement or a contribution or campaign support from an organization run by Kasparian. Seven said they would accept support.
Campaign finance reports show that State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-Golden Hill, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-Mission Hills, both received $4,200 in contributions from Local 135. The union made donations to Hueso on Aug. 14 and to Gloria on Oct. 30.
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