Monica Garcia

Timing of cannabis company’s donation to California councilwoman raises questions

The day after Councilwoman Monica Garcia recommended one company get a monopoly on transporting cannabis within Baldwin Park’s borders, she received a $4,400 campaign contribution from the company’s CEO, campaign finance records show.

The records filed in January show Sharone Bershatski, the president and CEO of Rukli Inc., donated the money to Garcia’s campaign for state Senate District 22 on Dec. 19.

Monica Garcia

That was after Garcia made a motion to award Rukli an exclusive distribution permit at Baldwin Park’s Dec. 18 council meeting. The motion passed 3-0.

That same month, Bershatski said he was contacted by Garcia’s campaign for state Senate.

“In the latter part of December, we were contacted by the Garcia for Senate campaign and we were very pleased to support her candidacy with a contribution,” Bershatski said in an email.

Garcia did not respond to questions about whether her campaign had a relationship with Bershatski.

In an email, she said “innuendos and allegations” over whether the CEO’s donation was in return for voting on the contract were “politically motivated.”

“The decisions I make on the City Council are based on what I believe to be in the best interest of my community — not anything else,” Garcia said.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and an election law expert, said the timing of Bershatski’s contribution was questionable, but not necessarily illegal.

“It looks like a bribe, but that doesn’t mean it is a bribe,” Levinson said. “Money follows decisions, but it doesn’t look to me like anything illegal happened.”

Levinson said it’s difficult to prove if public officials are being bribed with political donations. She also said it’s easy to provide legal explanations for donations that may seem unethical.

“It’s so difficult to ever find that smoking gun moment,” she said, adding that the contributor could argue that “‘we found someone who supports our view and we want her to be able to be successful in life’ — that’s entirely legal.”

Bershaktski’s only other political donation to a Baldwin Park city official was the $10,000 he contributed to police Chief Michael Taylor’s campaign for the West Valley Water District’s Board of Directors in Rialto.

In the same email, the Rukli CEO said over the last several months he learned Taylor was running for the board seat.

“We understood that he was a good man with a long tenure of service in the city of Baldwin Park and we elected to lend our support,” Bershatski said. “We saw no conflict with supporting the police chief’s endeavor in expanding his contributions to public service.”

The decision to award Rukli an exclusive distribution permit was a controversial one.

The week before, the council approved permits for five businesses that had planned to self-distribute their products. Some said being forced to work with one distributor could raise their costs.

Garcia, 42, a Democrat, is one of six candidates running to succeed state Sen. Ed Hernandez, who is termed out and is running for lieutenant governor. Also running are fellow Baldwin Park Councilwoman Susan Rubio, El Monte Councilwoman Victoria Martinez, former state Assemblyman Mike Eng and union organizer Ruben Sierra, all Democrats. La Puente resident Michael Adams is running as an independent candidate.

Eng, who lives in Monterey Park with his wife, Congresswoman Judy Chu, had more than $1 million cash on hand as of June 30. Rubio and Martinez had nearly $136,000 and about $47,000, respectively, at that time.

Sierra and Adams had not yet filed any campaign finance reports as of June 30. A GoFundMe account linked to Sierra’s website had just over $5,000 Monday.

As of Dec. 31, Garcia, who filed a statement of intent to run for the seat in November, had raised nearly $122,550 in campaign funds, including $52,000 of her own money.

Campaign finance reports for the second half of 2017, which are due Jan. 31, were not available Monday for the other candidates running for the seat.

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