An ethics complaint filed against Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias alleges that he participated in negotiations on a trash hauler contract when he should have recused himself.
The Fair Political Practices Commission received an anonymous complaint on Oct. 25 but released it to the public on Tuesday. The FPPC sent Arias a letter dated Oct. 27 informing him of the complaint and asking for his response within 14 days.
The complaint alleges that Arias violated the Political Reform Act’s gift limit, failed to disclose the gift, and had a conflict of interest.
Arias is alleged to have accepted a plane ride from Las Vegas to Fresno in mid-March from Joseph Kalpakoff, CEO of Mid Valley Disposal. The value of the flight allegedly was never reported to city officials or the FPPC. In addition, the anonymous complaint alleged that the flight’s value exceeded the allowable gift limit for an elected official.
If Arias did exceed the gift limit, he would not be allowed to vote on any Mid Valley Disposal issue nor would he be able to participate in negotiations.
Arias declined to make an immediate comment to GV Wire. Kalpakoff did not return several messages left by GV Wire seeking comment for this story.
Arias is running for Fresno County Supervisor in 2024 against incumbent Sal Quintero and Fresno City Councilmember Luis Chavez.
Sept. 14 Vote on Mid Valley Disposal Contract
Arias was absent from the city council meeting on Sept. 14, when the council voted 6-0 to amend a hauling contract with Mid Valley Disposal and another operator. Arias said he had a personal obligation that day and thus missed the meeting. His absence was excused by City Council President Tyler Maxwell.
“He instead decided to miss the entire day of council meetings, falsely believing that absolved him from his financial conflict of interest and requirement of public disclosure to the public,” the complaint alleges.
Fresno City Manager Georgeanne White tells GV Wire that she held several meetings in the days leading up to the Sept. 14 vote on the contract. Among those who met separately with White and public utilities staff included Maxwell and fellow councilmembers Mike Karbassi, Luis Chavez, Annalisa Perea, and on Sept. 12, Arias.
White said the meetings discussed deadlines the city faced in passing an amended contract to comply with state law for collecting organic waste.
“His participation in the agenda item included meeting with city staff, mid valley disposal [sic], republic waste services [sic] and city administration staff in charge of the contract
management. He proceeded to modify, change and materially alter the final version of the contract, then not recuse himself and publicly notify the public of his conflict,” the complaint alleges.
How Did Arias Fly Home?
GV Wire has reviewed documents that show Arias booked and paid for a commercial flight to and from Las Vegas on the dates in question. The complaint lists March 16-17, 2023.
The complaint alleges that Arias took a commercial flight from Fresno to Las Vegas, but did not return via a commercial airline.
“There is also video footage of Mr. Arias landing in the Fresno Yosemite Airport,” the complaint said. GV Wire filed a public records act request for the video, but the request was rejected by City Attorney Andrew Janz’s office, citing public safety concerns.
Signature Aviation, where the private plane would have flown into at FYI, said there are video cameras but the company only saves footage for one week.
Private airplane tracking data provided to GV Wire shows that a plane registered to JJK Acquisitions — with Joseph Kalpakoff listed as the registered agent and sharing the same Kerman address as Mid Valley Disposal — flew from Fresno Yosemite International Airport to Harry Reid International in Las Vegas on March 17 at 10:30 a.m.; and returned to FYI a few hours later, landing at 2:04 p.m.
Janz on Tuesday declined any comment about the complaint filed against Arias.
The Rules on Gifts
Campaign finance in California is regulated by the Fair Political Practices Commission. The state political watchdog also handles complaints and examines reports of violations.
The plane flight, which would be considered a gift, is presumed to have a value of more than the $590 yearly maximum allowed from a single source. That would disqualify Arias from not only voting on a contract with Mid Valley Disposal but also from discussing the matter — even with city staff.
Charter flight company Evo Jets estimates a private flight from Las Vegas to Fresno would have a value of $6,000 for a plane carrying six to eight passengers.
If Arias did accept a flight from Mid Valley Disposal, a gift can be exempt, and thus no basis for a disqualification, if it is returned or reimbursed within 30 days.
Not reimbursing the flight and discussing the matter could be a violation of the state’s ethics laws, and could put the contract in jeopardy.
“The contract voted upon these conditions for mid valley [sic] and Republic waste on Sep 14, 2023, is subsequently null and void until the contract is cured by way of the council re-voting on the contract and Mr. Arias clearly and publicly stating his conflict and the reason for the conflict, in accordance with California state laws,” the complaint alleges.
Flight Would Be Considered a Financial Interest
Several ethics guides, including one authored by the League of California Cities, describe a gift of more than the allowable $590 to be a “financial interest.” Such a gift requires not voting on a matter, as well as refraining “from participating in a governmental decision.”
“No public official shall make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his or her position to influence a governmental decision if he or she knows or has reason to know that he or she has a financial interest in the decision,” the League guide says.
Not Reported on Campaign Disclosure Form
While the deadline for reporting a gift with the city isn’t until next year, campaign finance disclosure forms require more immediate reporting.
The most recent campaign finance disclosure report for Arias — for contributions through June 30 — did not include a contribution from Kalpakoff, Mid Valley Disposal, or other entities. Similarly, campaign documents filed by Mid Valley Disposal Inc. did not list any contributions to Arias.
FPPC would require the amount to be reported under “non-monetary contributions.”
Gifts must also be reported on yearly disclosure documents — known as Form 700 — which are due April of the following year.
Ethics of Gifts From a Company With a City Contract
Even if Arias took a flight on Kalpakoff’s plane and legally reported it, it still does not make it right, one ethics expert said.
“One sees the appearance of a conflict of interest with the councilman accepting private travel from an individual who has contracts with the city. Even if this was legal and no city business was conducted as part of this trip, a common perception might be that the councilman was accepting a gift of travel in return for assisting the businessman with city contracts,” said John P. Pelissero, Senior Scholar in Government Ethics with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
Regarding Arias’s absence on Sept. 14, Pelissero said that “the councilman should disclose his involvement in the contract decision process and explain why he did not vote on the matter. If it was because of a conflict of interest, the councilman should be transparent on the matter.”