California lawmaker opens legal fund over Facebook dispute

Sen. Catherine Blakespear is raising money from interest groups to fight ongoing litigation related to allegations that she blocked critics on social media when she was mayor of Encinitas. (Photo courtesy of the Catherine Blakespear campaign)

By Alexei Koseff | CalMatters

A first-term state senator is raising money from interest groups to fight ongoing litigation related to allegations that she blocked critics on social media in her previous job as mayor.

Sen. Catherine Blakespear, who was elected to the Senate in November to represent South Orange County, opened the legal defense fund in late 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. Contributions include $12,000 from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters and $5,500 from the Pechanga Band of Indians, who lobby at the state Capitol.

Blakespear declined to discuss the case in depth because it is still active, but he did defend using his legislative position to raise money for his bills.

“This is a politically motivated lawsuit,” Blakespear told CalMatters on Wednesday. “This is obviously related.”

The case dates back more than a year, to April 2022, when a group of Encinitas residents who had written comments critical of then-Mayor Blakespear demanded she unblock them from her Facebook page, according to The Coast News Group, a local media. in northern San Diego County.

Blakespear allowed the critics to return to his Facebook page and settled with them a month later, agreeing to issue a public apology and pay $5,000 in attorneys’ fees. But then, in September, residents sued Blakespear, who was in a close race for the Senate seat, alleging that he violated the terms of the agreement by making an unsatisfactory apology and using campaign funds, instead of his own money, to pay legal costs.

After filing and withdrawing a countersuit, Blakespear in January sought to have the claim dismissed over his apology under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which protects conduct considered free speech. She won that motion and, in a provisional ruling Monday, she was awarded nearly $121,000 in attorneys’ fees, though she continues to grieve about how she paid the initial settlement.

Carla DiMare, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return messages seeking comment.

Blakespear had racked up more than $95,000 in unpaid bills to Olson Remcho, a prominent political law firm, by the end of March, according to the most recent filing from his legal defense fund.

It also reported more than $45,000 in legal services from the California Democratic Party in January as non-monetary contributions. A party spokesman 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 may not use their campaign funds for legal expenses unrelated to the primary purpose of the account, but may open separate legal defense funds. These committees do not have traditional contribution limits; Candidates may 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, donated $5,500 to his legal defense fund on March 31.

“Pechanga leadership has been impressed with the senator and is hopeful that she will be a fierce advocate for the region and for California,” Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the tribe, said in a statement. “They are helping a friend who needs help.”

The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters committee of small taxpayers donated $12,000 last week, after previously giving the maximum of $19,400 to his Senate bid. The union did not respond to requests for comment on its contribution.