Felony-Convicted Political Consultant Under House Arrest, Votes on Democrat Party Endorsements

The corruption in San Diego is not just limited to the mess at the Metropolitan Transportation Services or the Nathan Fletcher-Grecia Figueroa sexual harassment lawsuit. This latest political scandal exemplifies how local corruption run amok simply gets swept under the rug, allowing these criminals, who should never get near the public trust again, to reinvent themselves, take that new persona all the way to statewide campaigns, and then slink onto a national platform. As we continually warn: What happens in California never stays in California.

Jesus and Andrea Cardenas are the latest poster children of this. This brother-sister duo have been a boil on the side of San Diego politics for almost two decades. Jesus Cardenas had a brief stint in 2006-2007 with the California Democrat Party and the Orange County Democrat Party before launching his own “political management organization” as Principal Consultant for Pal ConsultantGrassroots Resources. Cardenas’ LinkedIn profile claims,

We specialize in all aspects of campaign management, including strategy, messaging and material design, staffing, scheduling, endorsement outreach, canvassing, media outreach, grassroots organizing and volunteer management.

Our leadership has over 15 years experience in political campaign services, having worked with a wide range of organizations, candidates and causes.

Known in those circles as a jack-of-all-trades, Jesus Cardenas’ Grassroots Resources “leadership” was involved in everything from cannabis lobbying to political campaigns (including his sister’s campaign for city council), to the Neighborhood Market Association, a trade group of independent San Diego storefronts. In 2017, Mark Arabo, a former head of the association, found himself in the crosshairs of a lawsuit involving funds mismanagement, and Cardenas appears to have had some involvement.

Consider this is our shocked face.

In 2017, when Mark Arabo sat for a deposition about where hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent while he led the Neighborhood Market Association, an attorney grilled him about why so much had gone to Jesus Cardenas, a political consultant.
Cardenas did everything, Arabo said. Not only did he help the group’s board of directors with government affairs, he could also put on an event or a golf tournament. If Arabo was the CEO of the association, Cardenas, he said, was something like the COO and the board trusted him.
“He’s like the — my perception is they thought he was a jack-of-all-trades. You need something, go to Jesus. You know, we have an event coming up, go to Jesus,” Arabo said.

From all appearances, Jesus Cardenas was a fixer who used his influence through grift and sleight-of-hand to rig the Democrat Party endorsement process. When Cardenas became the chief of staff to City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, he blurred the lines between personal interest and the public interest. So did his sister Andrea when she was elected as District 4 City Councilwoman in 2019.

But for many years, they have been balancing two trades that are impossible to balance: the lobbying and advocacy for companies and interests while also trying to be public officials charged with regulating some of those same interests. The Cardenas siblings most dicey of those juggling acts has always involved the cannabis industry where they served both as hired operatives for multiple entities while Andrea Cardenas sat on the Chula Vista City Council and Jesus Cardenas managed Whitburn’s office where cannabis regulations were discussed.

Also in 2019, Jesus Cardenas was accused of putting his thumb on the scales of local politics in San Diego’s South Bay by creating multiple Democrat clubs on paper in order to funnel money and endorsements through his consultancy, Grassroots Resources. As anyone who has run for office knows, these endorsements are critical because they determine who gets financial support from the party, and Cardenas wanted to ensure that the candidates that Grassroots Resources backed had their slice. David Alvarez, a former San Diego councilman, raised the alarm on this practice and demanded an independent audit be done to see how much San Diego Democrat Party money ended up in Grassroots Resources coffers and, by extension, Cardenas’ pocket.

“Everybody in South County knows they’re controlled by one entity,” Alvarez said. “If they say otherwise, they’d be lying.”
Cardenas said all he’s done is help the area’s young people get involved in politics.
“Nobody has ever been interested in these students,” he said. “I’m actually glad this is coming up, because then we’re putting attention into a disenfranchised community that [the party] never, ever supported.”

Ah yes, the disenfranchised and the poor, who end up further disenfranchised and poor after someone like Jesus Cardenas has done their work. In January 2022, Cardenas’ baby was suspended by the state Franchise Tax Board; yet somehow, Grassroots Resources managed to raise and spend $200,000 on digital advertising for the 2022 elections. The San Diego-Union Tribune exclusively reported on this, 

The latest spending — $87,500 — was disclosed in a San Diego County Democratic Party report to the California secretary of state late last month. The filing period covered revenue and spending between Oct. 23 and Dec. 31.
Grassroots Resources also collected $117,500 from the local Democratic Party between early September and late October, records show, pushing its election-season campaign activity to at least $205,000.

All this while Jesus Cardenas pulled down a six-figure salary as COS to Councilman Whitburn. When this malfeasance was uncovered, it was reported that Whitburn demanded Cardenas step away from his political consultancy firm. Instead, in April 2023, Cardenas left his position as chief of staff. He claimed he wanted to pursue new opportunities and work on electing other Democrats to office. But this land shark probably smelt the blood and understood that he was about to come under attack. 

This did not take long. In November 2023, the San Diego District Attorney charged Jesus and Andrea Cardenas with 12 criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit fraud, money laundering, grand theft, and tax evasion. In 2021, the pair applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans to allegedly protect the wages of 34 of their employees. This is while both were working full-time for the City of San Diego as District 4 City Councilwoman (Andrea) and Chief of Staff to Councilman Stephen Whitburn (Jesus). The employees they claimed for the loans were actually employed by Harbor Collective, a cannabis dispensary. Those $33,500 loan funds went directly to Andrea Cardenas’ City Council campaign. In addition, a grand theft charge was added because, in 2020, the pair also allegedly collected funds from the California Employment Development Department.

Graft and corruption apparently keep you very busy.

After denials and an attempt by Andrea Cardenas to still run for reelection (good luck with that), in February, the pair pleaded guilty to the grand theft charges for fraudulently obtaining the PPP funds and unemployment benefits. Andrea Cardenas will receive her sentencing in August. In mid-March, Jesus Cardenas was sentenced to 180 days in custody and two years of probation.

Cardenas’ custodial term will include 45 days in the work furlough program, with the remainder to be served on home detention. He also was ordered to pay over $200,000 in restitution to the Small Business Administration and the state’s Employment Development Department.

Basically a slap on the wrist, and as the late, great Rush Limbaugh would say, a resume enhancer. Apparently the San Diego Democrat Party thinks so. While under house detention, Cardenas made the time to not only attend a party endorsement meeting on April 8, but to employ his voting powers!

Why is anyone surprised?

The lessons of California corruption should not be ignored. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla not only oversaw all types of election malfeasance in 2020 that the California legislature posthumously passed legislation to cover up, but he engineered a highly questionable no-bid contract with a Democrat voter-advocacy organization. Conflict of interest, much? He was rewarded with an appointment to the Senate for his troubles. The former California Secretary of Labor, now current Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su has basically forgiven herself for the 33 billion in fraud perpetrated during the pandemic when she held the reins. 

San Diego citizens who were affected by the Cardenases’ graft, like longtime resident and former city commissioner Russ Hall, are rightly concerned that Jesus and Andrea will simply lay low and then come up with new tools to return to their same old tricks

“A lot of people in Chula Vista are frustrated and feeling a little bit betrayed,” Hall said. “We’re wondering how this (plea agreement) will change anything. It is a concern that (the Cardenases) will now know what not to do with their political consulting. It’s a real blow to those of us who have worked hard to try and push for change.”

While other local and state communities have corruption issues, California appears to make it an art form. It’s a tale as old as time.

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