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Councilmember Tammy Kim & the Korean American Chamber of Commerce: Pay-to-Play Politics?

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Photo from Councilmember Kim’s City newsletter, promoting her attendance at the convention hosted by the Korean American Chamber of Commerce

Last month, Councilmember Tammy Kim directed $5,000 of City funds to the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Orange County (KACCOC) and sought another $50,000 in City funds for the organization, all after she received a maximum campaign donation from the Chamber’s president, who also hosted a fundraiser for Kim’s mayoral campaign.
 
The donation of $620 — the maximum allowed under the City’s campaign funding ordinance — from KACCOC President Shang Il “Sean” Roh was received by Kim’s campaign in February of this year, according to an official campaign financial report filed in July and signed by Councilmember Kim.
 
On June 23rd, Roh hosted a fundraiser for Kim’s campaign at WeWorks Irvine that was attended by several current and former Korean American Chamber officials, according to an article about the event in The Korea Daily. Notably, Councilmember Kim’s official campaign financial report shows a spike of 25 donations received on June 23rd, but it is unclear which donations came from the fundraiser’s attendees or invitees.
 
Three months later, at the September 26th City Council meeting, Kim placed two items on the agenda involving the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Orange County. The first was a donation of $5,000 in Community Partnership Fund money to the KACCOC Foundation.
 
Each member of the Irvine City Council has — as part of their office budget — a $10,000 Community Partnership Fund allocation that they can spend at their discretion in support of local nonprofit organizations. The donations must be approved by the full Council, but that approval is always granted as a courtesy as part of the Consent Calendar on the Council agenda. Kim’s donation was unusually large — Councilmembers’ donations typically range from $500 to $1,500 and sometimes as much as $2,000 — but it was approved.
 
The second item Kim proposed was for the City to give $50,000 from federal COVID relief funds to the Chamber for a sponsorship at the World Korean Business Convention to be held in Anaheim and co-sponsored by the Chamber. Other than Councilmember Kathleen Treseder, who supported the request, Kim’s Council colleagues cited concerns about the amount, the propriety of using COVID relief money, and the fact that the event was being held in Anaheim. It was voted down, 2-3.
 
In January of this year, a new state law took effect barring elected officials from taking part in official actions that benefit donors of $250 or more to their campaigns. The law was intended to address so-called “pay-to-play” politics, where campaign donations are used to gain political access and receive favorable consideration from elected officials.

The new law is still being tested in various situations, such as these. According to experts consulted by Irvine Community News & Views, the fact that the donation to Councilmember Kim came from Roh’s personal funds, not Chamber funds, puts Kim’s actions in a gray area.
 
Irvine is currently reviewing its ordinances and rules regarding lobbying and conflicts of interest, with an eye toward strengthening them. A staff report on possible changes is due in December.

Roger Bloom

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