HANFORD — The Kings County grand jury released a report this week accusing a Hanford City councilman of violating campaign finance requirements and misleading voters.
According to the report, the grand jury received multiple complaints about the “named” councilman, including failure to properly manage and report his campaign finances and misleading voters about his academic credentials.
Vice Mayor Francisco Ramirez told The Sentinel the allegations refer to him. The report alleges Ramirez failed to file the appropriate campaign finance form for his 2014 campaign. Ramirez filed a Form 470, which showed that he raised and spent $1,000 or less.
According to the report, Ramirez told the grand jury that he actually raised $1,024. The report claims Ramirez raised more than $3,000 in donations and in-kind gifts. The grand jury said it verified the amount via written and verbal testimony from donors, as well as cancelled checks, invoices and other documents.
The report does not provide any additional information about the documents referenced.
The grand jury also criticizes Ramirez for failing to open a campaign checking account, which was required beyond the $1,000 threshold.
Questions about Ramirez’s campaign finance reporting first surfaced during an August 2015 council meeting. Then-Mayor Russ Curry attempted to read several letters into the record. The letters claimed to be from citizens who were concerned about Ramirez’s campaign finance reporting and his educational background.
A Sentinel investigation found none of the letter writers were registered to vote in Kings County, nor did any of them own property in Kings County. None of the authors had listed phone numbers or any discernable online presence.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) confirmed in August 2015 that it had opened an investigation into allegations that Ramirez did not comply with the state’s reporting requirements.
Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the FPPC, said this week that the investigation is still ongoing. Wierenga said about 90 percent of all cases are resolved within a year.
Ramirez said he has reviewed his records and found that he raised more than $1,000. He said he is continuing to work with the FPPC to determine what should have been reported and which forms he should have used.
“They’re still trying to determine exactly what needs to be on them,” Ramirez said.
The grand jury’s recent report also accuses Ramirez of misleading voters in 2014 by claiming to have bachelor’s and master’s degree from Columbia Pacific University, an online institution. According to the report, Ramirez provided copies of the degrees to the grand jury.
The report cites an October 2000 ruling by the California Supreme Court, which found Columbia Pacific University could not legally issue degrees after June 25, 1997. Ramirez received his degrees in May 1999 and June 2000.
According to the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, degrees issued after the cutoff date are not legally valid, meaning that employers, schools and licensing agencies may not recognize them.
Hanford City Clerk Jennifer Gomez said there are no educational requirements to serve on the City Council. Council candidates must be at least 18 years old and registered to vote in the district they live in. Gomez said candidates must meet those qualifications by the day they pull their nomination papers.
“So if someone moved to District B and registered to vote there on July 20 then they could pull papers on July 21,” Gomez said in an email. “I verify these qualifications when they meet with me to pull their nomination papers.”
Once elected, a council member must continue to live in their district as long as they serve.
The Sentinel reported about Ramirez’s degrees during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for City Council. At the time, Ramirez acknowledged that the degrees were not legally valid in California, but said he worked hard for them and would continue to promote them.
Ramirez said Friday that he spent more than five years earning the degrees, starting when he was on independent studies at Earl F. Johnson High School.
He said he learned about the legal validity of his degrees following the 2010 Sentinel report and tore up his transcripts amid criticism that resulted from the story.
The grand jury recommended that Ramirez no longer cite the degrees as part of any campaign literature.
“I’m going to do all the recommendations the grand jury had in its write-up,” Ramirez said.