A new public records document has been released by the City of Milpitas, revealing new details regarding a Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) investigation of Mayor Carmen Montano.
Last year, the FPPC opened the case after receiving a complaint from a Milpitas resident. The complaint had to do with a travel gift to China, totaling $3,600, that Montano accepted from an individual named William Wang back in 2019, when she was a council member. At the time, the allowable gift limit for elected officials in the state of California was $500; at present, it’s set at $590.
The only exception that would allow for that amount to be higher is if the travel was in connection with a “public purpose” or business.
Over a week ago, the City of Milpitas released an email exchange between Montano and Christopher Diaz, who was working as Milpitas’ City Attorney at the time. In the exchange, which happened in February 2020, Montano is asking Diaz for advice on filling out her Form 700, which is a document in which elected officials must disclose gifts that they receive.
“It took me almost a year to get access to this email,” Milpitas resident Chris Martin told The Beat in an interview. “I’ve been trying since last June.”
Martin is the same resident who filed a complaint with the FPPC last October. He believes that this new information is key evidence that shows that Montano falsified her Form 700.
Wrote Diaz to Montano in the email exchange: “Based on the facts as we understand them here, your travel was not in connection with a legislative or governmental purpose or an issue of state, national, or international public policy, and third party payments were not provided by another government agency, an educational institution, or a 501(c)(3). Thus, this statutory exception would not appear to apply to the factual situation here.”
He then went on to state that if Montano’s trip was taken in connection to a business purpose, it would meet the exception.
Four months after this email exchange, Montano went to file her Form 700 and made sure to state that the purpose for the trip was in relation to her tutoring business. On the form, she wrote that she “observed new teaching strategies for my education business” at the “No. 1 Middle School of Wuzhi in Henan Province, China.”
The Beat could find no photos of Mayor Montano visiting that location. But there are photos of Montano, along with other council members from cities across California, visiting a trade fair together.
“It’s quite clear from the evidence that she actually was not doing her educational program,” said attorney Ann Ravel in an interview with The Beat. “That is clearly a violation of the disclosure requirements without question.”
Ravel, who worked as Chairperson of the FPPC from 2011-2013, also feels that it’s suspect that Montano only put down $3,600 on her Form 700.
“It costs more than $3,600 for a week to fly to and back from China, and to eat and go to all these events. That in and of itself is ridiculous,” said Ravel.
But Montano doesn’t feel like she did anything wrong. And she feels that Chris Martin highlighting this email adds nothing new to the conversation…
“At the time of the trip, I thought it was permissible, so I took the trip. The email Mr. Martin brought to your attention adds little to the story other than that I consulted the city attorney about it and publicly disclosed the trip on my form 700 as a business trip, consistent with what I thought was his guidance,” Mayor Montano shared with The Beat.
To Montano’s point, in Diaz’s email, he wrote the words: “Based on our research, we believe this trip may qualify as a ‘payment for travel in connection with a business’ as further discussed below, but you will need to verify whether the travel expenses would qualify as a business tax deduction for your tutoring business…”
It did take many months before the City of Milpitas released the email exchange to Martin. He was initially told that it was attorney-client privilege, and that they weren’t allowed to release it to the public. But Martin kept pursuing the City, citing his right to receive the exchange as protected by section I-310-3.70 (iii) of Milpitas’ Municipal Code, which states that communication that involves compliance with the Political Reform Act must be disclosed.
City Clerk Suzanne Guzzetta released the email exchange to Martin on April 12.
When The Beat reached out to the City and asked them why it took so long, a representative replied via email: “This matter involves a very complicated legal issue. The City released the information as soon as we were able to.”
After receiving the email exchange, Martin sent it out to the FPPC and District Attorney to aid in their ongoing investigations.
If the FPPC does find that Montano neglected to properly disclose the gift she received on her Form 700, she may have to pay a fine, the amount of which is uncertain.