SBC GOP Head’s Personal Agenda Is Shortchanging Party Candidates, Stalwarts Say

By Jennifer Oliver O’Connell
According to Article 2.1 of the San Bernardino GOP Bylaws, the mission of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee (SBCRCC) is to promote the republican form of representative government. In the last few years, it has been failing this mission miserably, and conservatives in San Bernardino feel the Central Committee Chair’s fingerprints are all over the wreckage.
Phil Cothran, Sr. is the BMIF—Big Man In Fontana. He is a lifelong resident of the Inland Empire city who has owned a successful insurance agency for almost 35 years. During that time, Cothran has worked his way into civic leadership and local and county power circles. Cothran is the president of the Fontana Chamber Of Commerce, president of Miss Fontana, Inc., chairman of the San Bernardino County Workforce Development Board, a reserve police officer with the Fontana Police Department, has served on the Fontana Planning Commission, and top of it all, he is chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. He prides himself on being a huge philanthropist. In 2014, the San Bernardino Sun wrote a puff piece on him, referencing him as the “Go-To Guy.”
The City of Fontana has a population of 216,330, having seen an increase of 7,710 since the 2020 Census was taken. Much of Phil Cothran Sr’s energy and attention have been devoted to Fontana. From a perusal of Fontana city pages and other San Bernardino Republican sites, some feel that focus has been at the expense of the San Bernardino County Central Committee. You see, Cothran obviously cares about growing his community. However, when you take on the position of chair of the county’s Republican Central Committee, then one’s focus should be on fundraising and promoting what is good for the entire county—not just a city of less than a quarter of a million people.
Some who have witnessed the ongoing erosion of the San Bernardino Republican Central Committee spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, others were quite open and vocal about their displeasure at the current state of affairs. Matthew Munson is one of the latter. Munson, who was the 2014 and 2018 Republican candidate for State Senate District 20 and has been heavily involved in county politics for the last decade, expressed his discomfiture.
“I’ve been deeply involved in my local county party. I’ve realized that San Bernardino County Party is basically worse ran than the L.A. County Party,” said Munson. “The L.A. County Party is usually known as the most dysfunctional county party. But San Bernardino basically overtook the title of “Dysfunctional County Republican Party” in our state. And that’s the reason why many of us ran for [Central] Committee in this cycle. We just got fed up about the decline in fundraising. We ended up having it like in 2019. The Chairman said, oh, ‘I’m going to be the salvation for the county party. We’re going to raise a lot of money.’ And then, we ended up having our executive director basically laid off.”
Regina Santamaria was the Executive Director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee from 2018 to 2020. In a phone call with Santamaria, she confirmed that she had been the Executive Director during that period, and also confirmed that she had been laid off by the heads of the committee. The executive director position has been a revolving door ever since, along with any war chest for the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee.
Munson continued, “We had almost a $50,000 plus debt around 2020-2021-ish and then we did a major fundraiser with Dinesh D’Souza and that helped pay off the debt. And then after that, basically, he [Phil Cothran] tried a fundraiser in August of 2022, but it fell flat because he ended up losing about $20,000 on that fundraiser. Where that’s on our debt, on our sheets, you know, if you look at the 460s.”
Form 460s are the biannual fundraising reports required by the Secretary of State for all political parties, party committees, candidates, candidate committees, and political action committees. The fact that these were obscured, filed in different locations (sometimes with the county, sometimes with the state), and practically buried (the committee has changed its name designation more than a few times), gives the appearance that someone does not want close scrutiny of the affairs of the San Bernardino Republican Central Committee. However, I ultimately dug up the Form 460 reports from 2017-2024 and combed through them. They tell a tale that corroborates what the interviewed subjects have been saying.
Catherine Saga Lara worked as San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee’s Election Integrity Director for four years and affirmed Munson’s assessment that the SBCRCC is “a hot mess” and that it’s part and parcel the result of Cothran’s leadership—or lack thereof.
Said Lara, “There’s our chairman, Phil Cothran, who is pretty much corrupt. He’s a big Fontana guy and it’s all about Fontana. He and the Fontana Mayor, Acquanetta Warren, have all of these deals going on with all of these developers [of] warehouses and unions. It’s a big political cog. [Cothran] became chairman of the GOP mainly because, you know, he wants to continue his reign for Fontana, not so much for the county. He really doesn’t give a shit about the county. So there’s been lots of problems with him.”
Change “lots” to “plethora,” and you have a more accurate picture. Going back to the Forms 460, you can see a shift in contributions to the SBCRCC from individuals and small business, to developers and labor unions.
While some have been trying to connect the dots from these hefty contributions to Cothran and the pet projects in Fontana, a bright line has yet to be found.
The major fissures in San Bernardino County’s Republican Party date back to well before Cothran’s leadership began. In 2013, Curt Hagman, a term-limited Republican Assemblyman Hagman decided he needed another political position to fill; so, he decided to run for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. There was only one problem: incumbent Republican Gary Ovitt already filled the seat, and planned to run for re-election. Hagman knew that the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee chairman at that time would not overthrow Ovitt in order to back him. Thus, the internecine drama began.
Hagman set about deposing the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee chairman, Robert Rego, and taking on the committee chairmanship for himself. Rego, during his tenure as chairman, had built the county’s Republican Central Committee into a formidable fundraising machine, and the party had used the mother’s milk of politics in multiple venues throughout the county to maintain incumbent Republicans in office or elect fresh candidates bearing the GOP standard, outmaneuvering their more numerous but less organized, less coordinated and underfunded Democrat counterparts.
Hagman knew that Rego would be reluctant to support any effort to oppose the reelection of an incumbent Republican such as Ovitt and outright unwilling to use the central committee’s money in support of a non-incumbent such as himself in an electoral effort against an incumbent Republican. In a power play that involved his coordinating with former Assemblyman and State Senator Jim Brulte who that year was gunning, ultimately successfully, to seize for himself chairmanship of the California Republican Party, Hagman utilized his available resources, which included his then-status as an assemblyman along with the talents of his Assembly office chief of staff, West Covina Mayor Mike Spence, to engage in a round of dealmaking and political horsetrading, to oust Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Central Committee and install himself in that post, a perch from which he could ensure that he would be able to prioritize the spending of local party money to elect him as San Bernardino County supervisor in the Fourth District in the 2014 election cycle.
Hagman is a consummate politician. Not only did he convince Ovitt that his time on the board of supervisors was finished, but he persuaded the majority Democratic District 4 voters to back him over Gloria Negrete-McLeod, the Democrat challenger who was a much more seasoned former assemblywoman, state senator and Congresswoman. The war chests from Hagman’s Assembly campaigns as well as from the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee facilitated this greatly. Hagman was able to set up his fiefdom on both the SBCRCC and the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors. In 2017, after several years of heading the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Hagman turned the reins over to Jan Leja, a lieutenant. This guaranteed that despite not having an official role on the SBCRCC, he still had his hand in its affairs. Robert Rego, the chairman who Hagman overthrew, has also maintained his seat on SBCRCC’s Executive Committee, and appears to have sold what many thought was a reputation of integrity in order to maintain an insider role. Leja stepped down as chair in 2021, and Phil Cothran, who was finance chair under Leja, was then elected to chair. So, the fractures and factions that were planted decades before is now yielding a bad harvest.
Angel mom, former 2020 Congressional candidate, and longtime Rancho Cucamonga resident Agnes Gibboney immediately noticed a divide between Executive Central Committee and the Committee Caucuses, and it was clear that the Executive Committee had opposite aims.
“Well,” said Gibboney, “I have been part of the Central Committee for quite some time as an alternate for other people. And then in 2020, I ran for Congress and I became an ex officio, but I didn’t know much [about] how the process worked. However, I was noticing an incredible amount of cliques, you know, from the very get go. It was just nothing but a clique! And obviously, it was like almost two groups mixed together, but they never mixed together—it was like water and oil.
As the SBC Sentinel reported, Hagman’s history included an alliance with Democrat politician Norma Torres, whom he convinced to endorse him for his Board of Supervisors seat over Connie Leyva—another Democrat politician with a history of experience that far exceeded his.
Despite Leyva’s labor and union affiliation, Hagman was able to pick up the endorsements of multiple unions, including the one that perhaps counted most, that of the Teamsters Union representing San Bernardino County employees. Torres was widely credited with giving the union bosses clearance to back away from Leyva and embrace Hagman.
Phil Cothran seems to have chosen to use the same playbook, but with the subtlety of a hammer on a nail. The comments on social media among the affected San Bernardino conservative communities is that Cothran has been making deals to funnel money to Democrat and Democrat-leaning candidates, in order to obtain perks for connected cities like his beloved Fontana. As the SBCRCC Chair, an overt endorsement of a Democrat candidate violates their bylaws. It also erodes the trust of the Republicans of the county who pour their time, talent, and treasure into candidates who they feel will represent them. Cothran has somehow managed to skate this line. However, there are political action committees registered in the county, one with clear ties to Cothran. These political action committees, known by the acronym PAC, have actively attacked fellow Republicans running for local, county, and statewide office. Most recently they have been used against Republicans running for San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee seats, and Form 460 documents from these PACs reflect the money that was spent on mailers and Facebook ads in order to oppose them. SBCRCC treasurer Robert Rego is a named treasurer for the Committee for an Effective Government, one of the PACs in question.
The other political action committee is the Inland Empire Business Alliance. According to the Form 410 Statement of Organization, the PAC was formed in 2016, and Phil Cothran is the named principal official of the PAC with Stephen Dunn as the named treasurer.
Dunn is also connected to the committee to elect Jesse Armendarez for Supervisor 2020. Jesse Armendarez was one of several Upland, Fontana, and county candidates supported by the PAC in 2016, but Armendarez appeared to receive much of the largesse for his Fontana City Council run. As the Form 460 below shows, upwards of $36,081.02 was spent on campaign mailers, compared to $20,480.50 for Mars Serna for Fontana School Board, and $16,361.66 for Debbie Stone for Upland Mayor.
As part of launching the Inland Empire Business Alliance, Phil Cothran loaned $23,000 of his own personal money to the entity.
It was the 2022 midterm elections where the eruptions and attacks on other Republican candidates became evident. One person who spoke on condition of anonymity felt that it tore apart the fabric of the community. This person felt the cohesiveness of the grassroots conservatives and Republicans in the county was its hallmark, and that Phil Cothran’s actions compromised this.
“That’s what I liked[…] the enthusiasm there compared to L.A. County,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the amount of people who wanted to help out, and volunteer. They wanted to get involved.”
Now that a County election was in play, the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee —or at least its Chairman—became heavily involved in the race for the District 2 Board of Supervisors seat, which represents Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga and northern Upland. It became 2013 all over again, as two Republicans were vying for the post: former Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez and longtime Rancho Cucamonga resident and Cucamonga Valley Water District member Luis Cetina.
Of note here: in California most local positions are supposedly non-partisan, and county and state offices are where candidates move into a political party apparatus. Reportedly, Armendarez was formerly a progressive Democrat and changed his party affiliation when he decided to run for Board of Supervisors. However, according to the San Bernardino Democrat Party, he was not forthright about his party affiliation or campaign funds. They filed a complaint with the Federal Political Practices Commission (FPPC) that a $31,000 transfer of funds from Armendarez’ Fontana City Council committee to his Supervisorial committee did not indicate the individual contributors. The Democrat Party alleged he was avoiding campaign contribution limits.
Armendarez’ challenger and fellow Republican Luis Cetina has no connections to Fontana, and thus did not receive the red-carpet treatment from Cothran or his team. Cothran exposed himself by endorsing Armendarez over Cetina.
Endorsement decisions are supposed to involve the entire Executive Committee, but according to sources, this step was bypassed. The Inland Empire Business Alliance Form 460 for the period covering July 2022 through October 2022 (right before the November election) attests to money having been spent to oppose Luis Cetina.
Here is where the second PAC, the Committee for an Effective Government came into play. A mailer and a Facebook ad began to appear about this time with language accusing Cetina of being a former Democrat and an agent for a leftist takeover of the San Bernardino Republican Party. The advertisement stated it was, “Sponsored by the Committee for an Effective Government,” and also included the names of the Republican candidates for the Central Committee, of which Catherine Saga Lara and Agnes Gibboney were a part. Even Aaron Park at Right Daily blog took notice at this glaring conflict of interest.
As this Form 460 filed by the SBCRCC attests, Cothran poured all of the SBCRCC war chest into the District 2 Board of Supervisors race for Jesse Armendarez. This is the same Jesse Armendarez he helped get elected in 2016 through large sums of money funneled through the Inland Empire Business Alliance PAC. Beginning with Armendarez’ ascension to the Fontana City Council, he has had a long—and some would say questionable—history with Chair Cothran and Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren. According to a Form 497 (which reflects big money contributions to a campaign/PAC), in 2014, a “Citizens and Friends of Acquanetta Warren” PAC poured $5,000 into Armendarez’ campaign for the Fontana Unified Board of Education. According to one constituent, who took to the platform Medium with their intel, Armendarez did not live within the boundaries of the Fontana School District and his children did not even attend any Fontana Unified school.
Armendarez was elected to that position, and his role on the school board appeared to be funneling city contractors and developers into the district to do work and to ensure he was a “Yes” vote for their approval. When Armendarez was elected to Fontana City Council, he seemed to serve the same convenient role, but only served one term. Apparently, Cothran had higher ends in mind. In 2020, Armendarez ran for District 5 Board of Supervisors but lost to Joe Baca, Jr.
Which brings us back to 2022 and the finances of SBCRCC. In pouring all the campaign funding into Armendarez’ District 2 Board of Supervisors campaign, Corthran left zero cash in the war chest for other pivotal races: namely the state Assembly. Many of the San Bernardino assembly districts are shared with other counties, but three are solely San Bernardino County. AD 47 and AD 50 were critical and could have been won by Republicans had proper funding and focus been applied. Assembly District 47 had been rezoned in 2021, creating an entirely new district with no incumbent in the race. Assemblyman Chad Mayes, who formerly represented Assembly District 42, had decided not to seek re-election. Mayes was an embattled Republican In Name Only who ultimately left the Party under a cloud of scandal and is decidedly Never Trump.
Mayes’ former aide Greg Wallis decided to run for the Assembly District 50 seat, where the endorsed candidate was Sheela Stark, who was running against Democrat incumbent and Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes. Reyes has held the seat since 2016. Because the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee spent all its cash on Armendarez, the staff assistant at San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee headquarters had to tell Stark, “I’m sorry, we have nothing to give you.” Stark lost the race by 17 points. Wallis, like his Democrat opponent, was a wildcard and barely squeaked through with less than 100 votes. But it is clear that in either race, money poured into candidate advocacy, and ballot harvesting and ballot curing (which is legal in California), could have affected the outcome, and potentially changed the trajectory of the race.
The staff assistant surmised of Cothran, “I think he was being very selfish about the whole thing.”
Just as Armendarez could be counted on as a guaranteed vote for construction and infrastructure projects when he was on the Fontana Unified School Board and the Fontana City Council to ensure that money was funneled in and through the City of Fontana, it is quite possible that with the California High Speed Rail project and others on the docket, Fontana could use an ally on the Board of Supervisors to ensure they get their slice of the pie. As one person interviewed surmised, “He wanted Armendarez to be on the Board of Supervisors—very much so—because of those railroad, businesses that would be up for grabs for Fontana.”
The staff assistant said, “Luis Cetina was the better candidate and was even more conservative. The whole reason they didn’t want Cetina is because he was Rancho Cucamonga.
I lost my respect for Phil Cothran because of that.”
The schisms created by Curt Hagman and exacerbated by Cothran have become a festering sore, and that sore has now erupted. The mismanagement of funds, attacks on fellow Republicans, and general rancor existent between the faction of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Executive Committee and Caucus representatives culminated in a particularly heated Central Committee meeting in September of 2023. Cothran’s and San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee’s poor management has also had a chilling effect on funding for the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and its causes, as well as volunteer participation, which is crucial for caucusing and get out the vote efforts. With the 2024 elections just six months away, this is not an effective position for a County central committee to find themselves.
With the progression of 2023 toward the election year of 2024, candidates for political office in the next election cycle, which will manifest first with the March primary, are readying for their electioneering efforts, including scouring the political landscape to size up the competition or possible competition, raising money, securing support, lining up endorsements and forming alliances.
A number of Republicans inching toward, or committed to, running in 2024 have been disheartened to learn that just as occurred in 2022, several of their party’s most prominent and influential members – including the chairman of the Republican Central Committee, Phil Cothran Sr – have committed to supporting the Democrats they are going to run against.
And this time around, there are national implications. Republican Mike Cargile has a good chance of unseating Democrat Congresswoman Norma Torres. However, Torres is on the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittees for Transportation and Housing, State and Foreign Affairs, and Financial Services. Torres has had ties to retired San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chair Curt Hagman, and there are unproven allegations of a connection to Chair Phil Cothran. If Torres staying in her seat means more funding for cities like Fontana, how much backing will Cothran give to Cargile, who may or may not contribute to those personal agendas? Republican Suzette Martinez Vallardes is running against Kipp Mueller for State Senate District 23, which encompasses cities in the county. With a county party in debt as well as in fracture, how much support and backing will she be able to receive in order to win her bid?
I reached out to San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chair Phil Cothran through his GOP email about the information outlined. As of this publication, Cothran has not replied or commented.
The issues with the Republican Party national apparatus uncovered at RedState, another publication to which I contribute, appears to have filtered down to this California central committee, and possibly others. This is a problem, especially for California, where conservatives are fighting for their lives. Regions like San Bernardino are the places where a real difference for conservatism can be made, not just in terms of the locality, but across the entire United States. Look at the powerful work being done by Representative Kevin Kiley (R-CA) not just for California, but for constitutionally-aligned persons across the nation. California is also the place where national candidates are made. Sadly, it only takes one power-hungry individual bent on their own agenda to ruin what should be a unified process of ensuring the best candidates get a seat at the table and proper representation, get the support and funding they need from their party, and most importantly, ensure that they can win.

Jennifer Oliver O’Connell is the progenitor of In My Orbit, a reader-supported publication.

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