Taormino Alleges Campaign Violations by No on L for Not Disclosing $20,000 in Legal Fees to Attorney for Lawsuit


The Vanguard sat down with WDAAC developer David Taormino who spoke at length about the lawsuit that has now been dismissed as of January 18, as the Vanguard reported over the weekend.

He wants to know if the opponents of Measure L violated the law by conspiring to avoid disclosing that they had either a contribution in lieu of dollars or actually made a contribution to Attorney Mark Merin.

“Those are factual questions that should be investigated,” Mr. Taormino stated.

On September 24, Samuel Ignacio filed a civil rights suit challenging whether the West Davis Active Adult Community and their Davis-Based Buyers Program adhered to fair housing law.  However, on December 4, the city as well as the real party in interest, filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the lawsuit was premature.

Mr. Taormino pointed out that the plaintiffs “voluntarily dismissed their own lawsuit.  They essentially agreed that it was not appropriately filed at this time.”  He said, “They’re saying that our challenge to their litigation was correct.”

Mr. Taormino added, “The lawsuit had no basis at this time.”

The original attorney for the plaintiffs was Mark Merin, who removed himself from the case without explanation on December 6 and was replaced by John McIntyre.

David Taormino said that when his attorney asked Mr. Merin why he filed the case, he explained. “I was misinformed… about the status of the action by the city council.”  Mr. Taormino said that he believes “had he not been misinformed, he may not have filed the lawsuit.

“Our gut feeling is that Mr. Merin did not actually prepare the lawsuit himself,” he further explained.  “Nor did his staff.  That it was prepared by third parties.”

Mr. Ignacio did not live in Davis.  “Then how did he learn about the project?” Mr. Taormino asked. 

“We keep meticulous records of who contacts us.  We respond to every one of them,” he explained.  “I personally read every one of the emails we get…  He never contacted us.”

They get on the waiting list in order of contacts received and so he explained, “That’s why we were very meticulous in the recording keeping, because we felt that we would never have enough supply for people.”

Every one of the records from day one are in the stack

“When you look at the complaint and analyze the statements in the complaint, there are verbatim quotes from Rik Keller,” he said.  “It’s a bit odd.  Would he have quoted those in his complaint without having a discussion?”

David Taormino noted that the timing of Mark Merin’s resignation comes a few days after they filed their response – which was the December 4 motion to dismiss.  Mark Merin signed the transfer of attorney power on December 6 and the transfer to John McIntyre was finalized on December 12.

“He resigned with no explanation,” Mr. Taormino stated.  “He refused to comment on why he quit.”

Mr. Taormino told the Vanguard that Mr. Merin told their attorney, Mr. Boutin, that he had received a $20,000 retainer from his client to represent this case.

The question that David Taormino has is where did that retainer come from?  He explained, “Mr. Ignacio, we know from our research, doesn’t have the wherewithal to come up with $20,000.”

“Where does somebody get $20,000?” he asked.  “That’s the question.  Who gave him $20,000?  Where did they get it?  Were they part of the campaign?  The opposition.”

“If so,” he believes, “that needed to be disclosed by federal and state laws – that the money was spent, the purpose of which was in support of their opposition to the ordinance.”

He told the Vanguard, “There is no disclosure in Measure L’s filings that any money or any contributions in lieu of money… Those are violations of the reporting laws.  The reason they exist is that the voter deserves to know and judge the motivation of people involved in the campaign.

“We think the law was violated,” he said.  “Dark money being hidden from the public for nefarious purposes.

“I think the public has the right to know,” he added.

For his part, Rik Keller, a member of the No on L campaign, generally declined to respond to questions from the Vanguard, but stated, “I have not seen the lawsuit other than the summary complaint posted on-line.”

Alan Pryor, listed as the treasurer for the campaign, did not respond to an email, nor did Michael Harrington.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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45 thoughts on “Taormino Alleges Campaign Violations by No on L for Not Disclosing $20,000 in Legal Fees to Attorney for Lawsuit”

  1. Matt Williams

    My question to David Taormino is “How is this public allegation in the best interests of the community?”
    It has every appearance of a peanut farmer going through his fields with a ruler.

  2. Craig Ross

    In response to Matt, I think there are three key issues here.

    From David Taormino’s perspective, even a frivolous suit that gets dismissed probably has added tens of thousands in litigation fees.  So while it’s easy for you to suggest (and in general I actually agree with you) take the high road, I’m sure it’s hard.

    The second issue is if the opponents of Measure L did bankroll this and hide the costs, that is a crime and that is of community concern.

    The third issue is broader and that is the fact that litigation has become the norm – even on projects vetted by the council and approved by the voters.  To him and probably to me, that’s anti-democratic.

    1. Matt Williams

      Craig, Dave Taormino may believe the lawsuit was frivolous, but the Court Judge made a very clear determination that he did not believe the suit was frivolous.  The Laws are written to give Judges the power to declare a lawsuit frivolous and impose (1) penalties, (2) court costs and (3) restitution to the other party of any legal costs that they have incurred in defending themselves against the lawsuit.  In this case Judge Mock did not declare the lawsuit frivolous, did not levy any penalties, and did not direct the plaintiffs to pay the defendants’ legal costs. 

      I agree with your second point, and there is a well-established community process for handling both the complaint and the community concern … filing a formal complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and let them investigate the complaint, and where appropriate levy a fine and/or sanctions, as they did to one of the 2014 City Council candidates after the election.  There is nothing in this Vanguard article that indicates that Dave Taormino has filed (or is planning to file) an FPPC complaint.  So, it appears from the information that we have that he only plans to file his allegation in the court of public opinion. 

      Regarding your third point, the United States as a whole is a very litigious society, probably the most litigious in the World.  So what is going on in Davis is only a reflection of the larger American community.  It is actually quite possible that Davis on average is less litigious than the US as a whole.  That is the context in which your third point exists … and in that context, your point is moot, even if it isn’t mute.

      1. Craig Ross

        “the Court Judge made a very clear determination that he did not believe the suit was frivolous.”
        Must have missed it.  It read to me like he simply agreed to dismiss without prejudice based on the rest of both sets of counsel.  I doubt that he even weighed in on the merits of the suit or whether it was frivolous.

      2. Mark West

        “the Court Judge made a very clear determination that he did not believe the suit was frivolous.”

        This is a gross misinterpretation by Matt. The Judge ruled that the lawsuit, as filed, lacked merit on the basis of the timing. Nothing else was considered so there was no determination one way or the other about the merits of the underlying complaint. The lack of sanctions is not notable here as the system is set up to allow for filing complaints, with sanctions generally restricted to activities that are both egregious and repeated (I am sure there are more appropriate legal terms and descriptions for this).

        Competent, experienced Counsel, working with honest and forthright clients, who together were interested in getting the housing discrimination claims fully adjudicated, would not have filed this claim when these plaintiffs did for the very reason cited by the Judge. They should have known it was going to be rejected as untimely. That suggests to me that getting the underlying claim adjudicated was not the actual goal of those paying the retainer, with the more likely explanation being an attempt at affecting the election results. I consequently doubt that those who funded this first attempt will ever refile the claim as the election is over.

      3. Craig Ross

        Matt here is the judge’s ruling: “IT IS HEREBY STIPULATED AND AGREED by and between Plaintiff SAMUEL IGNACIO (“Plaintiff”) and Defendants CITY OF DAVIS, a municipality; BINNING RANCH HOLDING COMPANY LLC, a California Corporation; J. DAVID TAORMINO (“Defendants”), through their respective counsel, that the entire action and all causes of action be dismissed, without prejudice, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(ii). Each side shall bear its own attorney fees…”
        Where do you see the judge making any kind of determination?

    2. Mark West

      Lawsuits against development projects have become the norm in Davis, and the direct costs of defending those suits and the resulting delay in construction add significantly to the cost of development. Those added costs are ultimately borne by the community via reduced availability and greater cost of both new housing and economic development opportunities. Settling the lawsuits is often viewed as the prudent approach for the developer as a means of reducing overall costs and shortening the delays. However, quick settlements, especially those with a financial payout to the plaintiff, simply encourage the next lawsuit by offering a pathway to what is essentially a legal form of extortion. Aggressive defense against the suits, on the other hand, will discourage future attempts at obstruction and ultimately benefit the community. Raising the question of a potential campaign violation is a clear example of an aggressive defense. 

      1. Craig Ross

        The city has adopted the stance of not settling lawsuit – a good idea.  But obviously unless there is cost here – these tactics can continue.  What they did is most likely illegal.  The DA probably won’t get involved after what happened with Grijalva, but the FPPC could get involved.

  3. PhilColeman

    This is getting quite interesting.

    For all the critics who condemned the recent policy change in Vanguard postings on anonymity,  take another look at what is unfolding now. With real name identifiers, we now have a written chronicle of posting by select persons who were adamantly opposed to Measure L. There is nothing improper to be taken on that stance alone.

    Advocacy is a foundation of every democratic form of government. People can and should speak freely, with minimal legal constraints about any aspect of our governmental process. Speaking freely can, and often does, however, have a potential consequence called accountability. Numerous writings by a known person create a pattern.

    When pronouncements are written and published it’s there forever and can be easily recovered and analyzed. When the author is known we can examine that person’s background and associations to measure motivation and intent. When large sums of money are involved, we can pursue that track that as well. “Money talks.”

    Anytime there is a vigorous pattern of communication of a particular topic — and a new revelation and or series of revelations come forth — one would reasonably expect to again hear from the zealous advocates. Should they be struck silent, or be deliberately evasive, or avoid an attempt at contact altogether, that’s a message as well. If the select advocates regain their voice anytime soon, we who have listened to your messages now have a few very pointed questions for you. All you need to say is yes, or no.

    1. Matt Williams

      Phil, while I agree with you in principle, the policy change in Vanguard postings does not eliminate ad hominem attacks, it simply eliminates the veil of secrecy from the ad hominem attacks that do get posted.

  4. Eric Gelber

    At this point, Mr. Taormino offers much in the way of insinuations and innuendo, but very little in the way of credible evidence.
    As we move forward, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental issue here: the desirability and legality of the buyers’ restrictions as they will ultimately be finalized. Because, as the developers repeatedly point out, the terms of the Davis-Based Buyers’ Program have yet to be determined, it cannot be said that, to date, either the City Council or the voters have made an informed decision on any specific buyers’ restrictions in approving the development project.

    1. Sharla Cheney

      I suspect that the 80+ people on the existing waiting list for affordable housing are hoping that this project is not delayed further by litigation or efforts to slow the development. 

    2. Craig Ross

      Eric – you acknowledged over the weekend that the suit was politically motivated and an effort to defeat the measure at the polls, based on that, it seems that the expenditures should have been disclosed by the campaign and they are in violation for not having done so.

      1. Eric Gelber

        I didn’t “acknowledge” any such thing. How could I? I have no way of knowing what the motivation was. I did say that whatever the motivations, there was a legitimate legal basis for challenging the proposed buyers’ restrictions.

        1. Eric Gelber

          Craig – I’m not sure what point you think you are proving. I did say “There is nothing wrong with efforts to defeat a proposed development—through a lawsuit or otherwise—because it violates fair housing law.” That’s a true general statement. (I might have clarified: “… a proposed development or features of a proposed development… .”) It is not an acknowledgement or proof of anything about the motivations behind this lawsuit challenging the proposed buyers’ restrictions.

      2. Matt Williams

        Craig, if everything you say is true, then the FPPC will investigate when/if it receives a filed complaint.  There is no indication from either David Taormino or David Greenwald whether any such complaint has been filed … but nonetheless the Taormino allegations have been “submitted” to the court of public opinion.  Ironically, that seems to be a premature “filing” for a political purpose in order to achieve a political objective.

        1. Craig Ross

          You’re being a little silly.  Taormino definitely leveled an allegation, but there is no “filing.”  He simply argued that the lawsuit was a premature filing for a political purpose and therefore required to disclose.  The FPPC will have to weigh in at some point, as could the DA’s office (although I doubt they will).

        2. Matt Williams

          Here are two simple questions for you Craig …

          (1) Why do you think Dave Taormino chose to disclose his allegation using the Vanguard rather than filing his allegation with the FPPC?

          (2) Do you think Dave Taormino will ever file a complaint with the FPPC regarding the actions described in the article?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Matt – he actually disclosed his allegations to both the Enterprise and the Vanguard. He further asked the city and the DA’s office to look into it further (per the Enterprise) – he didn’t mention that to me in our conversation.

        3. Matt Williams

          David, the Vanguard and the Enterprise are indistinguishable for the purposes of the point.  They are both vehicles for conveying a political message rather than a legal message. 
          It is also interesting that Dave has chosen to report an alleged violation of FPPC rules to the City and the DA’s office, but (as best as we know) not to the FPPC itself.

        4. Craig Ross

          We don’t know that he or someone else hasn’t filed the FPPC complaint.  It’s worth noting that the FPPC is quite limited in what they can do here – assess a fine.  That doesn’t exactly address the criminal nature of efforts to conceal campaign related expenditures.

        5. Matt Williams

          You are right Craig, we do not know.  Why don’t we know?  The answer to that question appears to be simple.  It appears that both Dave Taormino and David Greenwald were more focused on getting out a speculative political message story than they were in getting out a factual report of the filing of an actual complaint with the FPPC.

          Now the truth is that we do not know what either Dave Taormino’s or David Greenwald’s motivations were in focusing on a speculative allegation rather than an actual complaint.  All we can do is see the rather obvious politics of the way this has been handled.

          The reality of the discussion of this article is that it is a throwback to the good-old days of the Vanguard prior to January 1st when political polemics were the rule rather than the norm.  For a centrist like myself, who neither supported nor opposed the WDAAC project … and told the respective proponents exactly why I was taking that neutral position … your persistent witch hunt based on half truths and faulty knowledge of the law is evidence that despite Phil Coleman’s 8:34am comment yesterday, not much has changed on the Vanguard in 2019.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            One point I would make Matt is that whether or not the FPPC received a complaint in this matter was not what I viewed to be the story. What I viewed to be the story was it was the first time that Dave Taormino went on the record to lay out his reaction to the lawsuit – particularly now that the suit has been dismissed. People file complaints with the FPPC all the time, the only time you’ll hear about it is if there some sort of finding that is made public. There are several bigger stakes in play that the FPPC including whether the city wishes to seek redress here.

  5. Alan Miller

    The Davis buyer’s program was politically motivated to help pass the measure, so a lawsuit from the other side that is politically motivated to stop the measure seems about par for the fight.

  6. Dave Hart

    I have the feeling in just chatting with a wide variety of people who never post on the Vanguard that the lawsuit either did not affect their vote or even pushed them to vote yes.  Why?  More and more folks are just tired of the “no, no, no” on housing developments.  The lawsuit seemed like an attempt to stop a project by going around the voters especially late in the campaign when it looked like it had a good chance of passing.  So if the lawsuit was a calculated campaign tactic, it was a bad use of campaign funds and they got what they deserved.  Also, I have to say, Taormino came off looking very thin-skinned and defensive in the weeks leading up to the vote.  He would have helped his cause and the yes campaign by taking a lower profile and not getting all bug-eyed over the opposition.  When anyone overreacts, I start to wonder about their motivations, fairly or unfairly.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “More and more folks are just tired of the “no, no, no” on housing developments. ”

      This has definitely been the sense I have gotten talking to most people in the community – they feel we have not had enough housing and it’s too difficult to get new housing approved.

      1. Matt Williams

        One of the interesting side conversations at the East Davis Fire Station last night was about how reducing Mace down to a single lane each way (plus a turn lane at the traffic lights) would bed a significant deterrent to any development of housing in the agricultural parcels to the south and east of Montgomery.  They wondered if Staff was purposely trying to suppress/eliminate future peripheral development.

      1. Don Shor

        When anyone overreacts, I start to wonder about their motivations


        Development has significant up-front costs and is risky. Lawsuits can delay projects for a very long time, which appears to be their primary purpose at times. Filing a lawsuit, as far as I know, doesn’t cost much. Putting down a retainer requires some cash on hand, but I assume that whoever did this got most of that back. Maybe an attorney here could clarify this, but I assume the $20K was largely refundable in the absence of significant amounts of pre-trial preparation.

        1. Alan Miller

          If you really want to see over-reaction, just go check out the 130+ comments on a recent post on Will Arnold’s facebook page.

          There’s another activity I’d enjoy about equally — it’s a sport involving my eye and an ice pick.

        2. Mark West

          “130+ comments on a recent post on Will Arnold’s…”

          With the bulk of those comments posted by three people (can you guess?)…all of whom had difficulty staying on topic.

          My favorite comment from Will…

          Will Arnold “All attempts to change the subject will be ignored.”

          had to be repeated more than once.

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