A "California embassy" housed in a Moscow office belonging to a Russian anti-globalization organization does not break election law because it's for personal use only, and is not part of the California secession ballot initiative effort, said Louis Marinelli, the president of the Yes California Independence Campaign.
During a 13 February 2017 press conference in Los Angeles, Marinelli sought to dispel media reports linking the #Calexit campaign to the Russian government, though he has been open about living (at least part of the time) in Yekaterinburg, where he works as an English teacher, with his Russian wife. Marinelli's committee is in the process of collecting signatures to place a secession initiative on California's ballots in 2018, and must gather 585,407 signatures by 25 July 2017 to qualify.
Although he has an address in San Diego, a particular twist to the campaign is that Marinelli, 30, often conducts media interviews from Russia, has attended a Kremlin-backed conference in Moscow for worldwide secession movements and appears on Russian state-funded television, RT.
In a 31 January 2017 interview, Marinelli told us the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (abbreviated in Russian to ADR) has allowed him to use office space free of charge for the "embassy," to which Marinelli refers as a cultural center. In September 2016, Marinelli and the leader of a Texas secession movement attended a conference organized by ADR in Moscow that enjoyed the backing of the Kremlin.
Both federal and state election laws prohibit foreign political contributions in domestic elections, and rent-free office space given to a political campaign could be considered an in-kind donation. Marinelli claimed the office is within legal parameters because it's "not used as an official office in Russia," but instead was donated to him on a personal basis. As of 13 February 2017, however, the ADR's web site advertises they are hosting the Calexit movement's Moscow "embassy" with the following description:
The representational office of California was opened on the 18th of December, 2016, at the headquarters of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia. It was opened by the President of the Yes California Independence Campaign, Louis Marinelli, and the President of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, Alexander Ionov.
Jay Wierenga, communications director for the Fair Political Practices Commission of California (FPPC), said the agency is "aware of media reports" but declined to comment further.
The FPPC has taken action against foreign political contributions in the past. In 2015, the FPPC fined the pornography industry $61,500 for accepting donations from a Luxembourg-based company in a failed campaign to block Measure B, which was passed in Los Angeles County and required adult film actors to use condoms while filming. In that case, two subsidiaries of the European company Marwin International made contributions to the committee opposing the measure totaling $343,293:
Froytal and Manwin USA both were subsidiaries of Manwin Licensing International
S.A.R.L., a Luxembourg-based internet video and online advertising conglomerate, which
specialized in pornography. Manwin International was managed by Fabian Thylmann—who also was Froytal’s administrator/corporate officer. At no time was Thylmann a citizen of the United States—nor was he a lawfully admitted permanent resident.
This case involves multiple violations of the Act, including unlawful contributions from foreign principals in connection with a local ballot measure, failure to comply with ballot measure committee name requirements regarding disclosure of the economic interest of major donors of $50,000 or more, and campaign reporting violations.
During the mid-morning press conference, Marinelli was flanked by Bay Area-based artist Clare Hedin, Long Beach businessman Don Sutton and co-founder Marcus Ruiz Evans. They talked about California's progressive values, business promise, and hopes that an independent Golden State would allow both a stronger push for their ideals alongside a more beneficial tax and finance position for businesses. Hedin said she hoped California could lead the way by having a kinder and more generous approach to world affairs without stifling the creative spirit that has come to characterize the state. "We cannot sit with any government that wishes to roll back the clocks of time," she said.
When questions were raised about what would happen if the initiative passes, the panel offered vague answers about the state having enough money and resources to support itself but said the details would be left for voters to decide.
Sitting silently in the back of the room was Linda Daly, the Los Angeles chapter co-chair of the California National Party, a separate organization that is also working toward California independence. Instead of seeking a ballot initiative, CNP is taking a longer route by working to form a political party and establish representation in Congress. The two groups are at odds with each other. CNP accuses Yes California of being a "Russian puppet" organization that is undermining their efforts by co-opting their identity and purposely misleading voters by using the name "Californian National Party." Daly said:
They’re the initiative, we’re a political party, we’re not affiliated. If any of our members want to support the initiative, have at it but it didn't seem like they are going to do anything beyond passing the initiative.
Daly's husband, Michael Alexander, who is not a member of CNP, said he attended out of curiosity and came away feeling the initiative was too abrupt and likened it to Brexit, where British voters elected to leave the European Union but then reacted with confusion when they realized the effort was successful:
I think people are going to be emotional about it and sign [to get it on the ballot], but when you look at the reality of what it would take to disengage from the U.S. , it’s just more complicated than these minds who were sitting behind the table today are capable of. It seems like they just want to get it on the ballot and let the chips fall where they may.
Marinelli assured the audience that Calexit would be a "double opt-in," meaning that Californians would have to approve it twice — once in November 2018 and if it passes, reaffirm it in March 2019.