SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
A first-term state senator is raising money from interest groups to fight ongoing litigation related to complaints that she blocked critics on social media in her previous job as a mayor.
Sen. Catherine Blakespear, an Encinitas Democrat who was elected to the Senate in November, opened the legal defense fund at the end of January and has raised $17,500 so far, in addition to receiving legal assistance from the California Democratic Party, according to campaign finance records.
Blakespear appears to be the only legislator with an active legal defense fund. The contributions include $12,000 from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters and $5,500 from the Pechanga Band of Indians, both of which lobby at the state Capitol.
Blakespear declined to discuss the case in depth because it is still active, but she defended using her legislative position to fundraise for her legal bills.
“This is a politically motivated lawsuit,” Blakespear told CalMatters on Wednesday. “This is obviously related.”
The case stretches back more than a year, to April 2022, when a group of Encinitas residents who had written critical comments about then-Mayor Blakespear demanded that she unblock them from her Facebook page, according to The Coast News Group, a local news outlet in northern San Diego County.
Blakespear allowed the critics back onto her Facebook page and settled with them a month later, agreeing to issue a public apology and pay $5,000 in attorney fees. But then in September, the residents sued Blakespear — who was deep into a close race for the Senate seat — alleging that she violated the terms of the settlement by making an unsatisfactory apology and using campaign funds, instead of her own money, to pay the attorney fees.
After filing and dropping a countersuit, Blakespear sought in January to have the claim about her apology dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which protects conduct considered free speech. She won that motion and, in a tentative ruling Monday, was awarded nearly $121,000 in attorney fees, though the complaint over how she paid the initial settlement continues.
Carla DiMare, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return messages seeking comment.
Blakespear had accrued more than $95,000 in unpaid bills to Olson Remcho, a prominent political law firm, as of the end of March, according to the most recent filing from her legal defense fund.
She also reported more than $45,000 in legal services from the California Democratic Party in January as non-monetary contributions. A spokesperson for the party did not respond to questions about the services. In an email, Blakespear’s attorney, Richard Rios, said only that “the California Democratic Party supported Senator Blakespear’s campaign.”
Political candidates in California cannot use their campaign funds for legal expenses that are unrelated to the primary purpose of the account, but they can open separate legal defense funds. These committees do not have traditional contribution limits; candidates can raise money “in an amount reasonably calculated to pay” their legal costs.
The Pechanga Band of Indians, which did not donate to Blakespear’s 2022 Senate campaign, gave $5,500 to her legal defense fund on March 31.
“Pechanga leadership has been impressed with the senator and is hopeful she will be a fierce advocate for the region and California,” Jacob Mejia, a spokesperson for the tribe, said in a statement. “They are helping a friend in need of help.”
The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters small contributor committee donated $12,000 last week, after previously giving the maximum $19,400 to her Senate run. The union did not respond to requests for comment about its contribution.
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