I May Be Responsible for the FPPC Investigating the Committee
I recognize that writing this article has the potential of hurting me – and even my husband – politically. However, I believe that I have a responsibility to keep my constituents informed about what’s going on in the ACDCC, even when the subject is discomfiting to myself.
At the last Alameda County Democratic Central Committee (ACDCC) meeting earlier this month, Robin Torello, the Committee’s Chair, announced that the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) was investigating the Committee for campaign finance law violations. The ACDCC’s Executive Committee had hired lawyers, but needed a vote of the whole Committee to authorize payment for their services. At $300 an hour, the legal bill was likely to be hefty. FPPC fines, someone chimed in, might be assessed against the Chair or even the Members.
According to Torello, the investigation had come about because “a member of the Committee” had repeatedly called the FPPC and had written “a blog” that had drawn the FPPC’s interest. When another member asked who that member was, I spoke out.
I hadn’t, actually, called the FPPC, but last December, I was contacted by an FPPC investigator. She wanted me to expand on a comment I had written on a story about how Democratic Senators were seeking to strengthen campaign finance laws:
The Democratic Party needs to start by cleaning up our own house. It’s disingenuous for anyone in this party to talk about disclosure of financial contributors, while the party itself takes advantage of any loopholes in the disclosure laws.
I’m a member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee (ACDCC) and I was appalled to find out that current policy and practice is for the ACDCC to take financial contributions from PACs and others earmarked to help a specific candidate that has been endorsed by the ACDCC. The party uses that money to send out a mailer on behalf of the candidate in question. The mailer will say “paid for the ACDCC”, and there will be no mention of who is actually funding it.
The point, of course, is for a person or PAC to be able to support a candidate without having to be seen as doing so. Let’s say you are the PAC of a union representing City Hall employees. Your union is in the middle of contract negotiations with the City. Mayor John Smith is running for re-election. You want to give him a big, big check to make him look kindly at you – but if you do that, or if you send out a mailer on his behalf, his opponents will pounce at him with allegations of bribery. What do you do? Well, you give the money to the ACDCC. Mayor Smith will find out where the money came from, of course, but it can’t be traced back to you, at least quickly enough for anyone to use it.
I find this extremely unethical, but I brought this up at our last Committee meeting and apparently I’m alone on having those feelings. :-(“
(Note: comments on the Political Blotter that were left before the blog started using the Disqus commenting service are no longer visible in a browser, but they can be seen by viewing the page source).
The members of the Committee had heard my complaints about the unethical nature of these practices before. I had first found out about then during the 2012 general election, when I received a mailer ostensibly paid by the Alameda County Democratic party asking me to vote for Jim Prola for San Leandro City Council. Prola was the Party’s endorsed candidate, but he was the popular incumbent in an easy race running against a candidate that had very little money. His re-election was pretty much assured, and I questioned why we would spend scant party resources on him, rather than on endorsed candidates that were in much more tenuous positions.
The explanation I got was that candidates or their supporters raise the money for the Party to send a mailer on their behalf. The Party does it and takes a cut. When I raised concerns about how this practice deceived voters by not letting them know who was actually behind the mailers, I was summarily banned by the Chair from posting on the Committee’s mailing list. I also brought up the ethical issues surrounding this practice at the Committee meeting following the 2012 general election, but nobody echoed my concerns.
I didn’t contact the FPPC about these issues, however. Partly, this was because I saw it an an ethical rather than a legal issue – even in my comment, I spoke about “loopholes” in the law. A larger part, however, is that going to the “cops” is just not my style. The way I saw it, the problem with this practice is that voters are misled as to who is really paying for a particular mailer. The solution is to inform voters and the press that whenever they see the “paid by the Democratic Party” phrase, they need to dig deeper as to the real financial source behind the publication.
I made the decision, however, to not write about this practice during the 2012 campaign season. Honestly, I was concerned that anything I wrote that painted the Democratic party in a negative light could be use by Republicans against Obama and other Democratic candidates. Perhaps the risk of Fox News noticing and running amok with the story was low, but I wasn’t willing to take it. I still don’t know if it was the right answer ethically. After the campaign, I made that comment in the Political Blotter blog and hoped to revisit the issue closer to next election.
After the Committee members voted to approve hiring lawyers, a member of the ACDCC’s Executive Committee, Angela Ramirez Holmes, moved to have me censured. While Torello had accused me of calling the FPPC repeatedly, she couldn’t actually back up the accusation so Ramirez Holmes’ used the comment I copied above as the rationale for the censure. She said that I should have used internal mechanisms to air my complaint and spoke about an alleged subcommittee on member-to-member communications. I had never heard of such subcommittee before and neither had many of my colleagues.
Ramirez Holmes also complained about my other writings. While she did not specify what writings she was referring to, I have a fairly good idea about one particular piece that she is unlikely to have taken kindly. Last year, after I started my second term in the Committee, I wrote a blog posting about my decision to vote against Royce Kelley for Committee Vice-Chair. At the time, Kelley was still listed as Ramirez Holmes partner in Alliance Campaign Strategies, a campaign management company. The company represents candidates for local office, including those seeking the Democratic endorsement, and also handled the member-to-member communications for the ACDCC. Both Ramirez Holmes and Kelley served on the Executive Committee, which proposes which candidates should receive the Democratic endorsement. I had heard from multiple former clients of theirs, as well as other people involved in the local political scene, that candidates felt they had to hire Alliance Campaign Strategies if they wanted to receive the Democratic endorsement, or at least block it from going to their opponent. While I took pains to point out in my article that I was not accusing them of wrongdoing, the mere perception that a candidate got an unfair advantage by hiring the firm is harmful to the democratic process and the Democratic party. While Royce Kelley is no longer associated with the firm, Ramirez Holmes is still in business and apparently representing candidates seeking the party’s endorsement for the June 2014 election.
While Ramirez Holmes wants me censured, she requested that the Committee not vote on it until the FPPC investigation is over – which the Chair assured the Committee would not take long. This reinforces the notion that the original rationale for the censure was the investigation, rather than my writings. While I didn’t call the FPPC myself, I don’t believe there is anything ethically wrong for a member of a Central Committee who has doubts about the legality of what its leadership is doing, to voice those concerns to the agency charged with overseeing campaign finance law. It worries me greatly that the censure is meant to discourage members of other County Central Committees from whistle blowing. Those are exactly the type of undemocratic practices that I feel compelled to challenge.
I will admit that I don’t particularly enjoy the idea of being censured by colleagues. However, I cannot attach credibility to a censure unless it’s based on an ethical lapse on my part or on my failure to keep the commitments I made to voters when I ran for ACDCC. For instance, if the consensus among Democrats was that I should not have put the Party above the voters and I that should have exposed the unethical member-to-member communication program back in October 2012, I would take that rebuke to heart. But a censure that is based on bringing light to a problematic practice by the Party, only brings shame to the Party. It is time the Democratic Party start living by the principles it espouses, not just expect others to do so. We must fight Citizens United and other decisions that equate money with speech, but we must not enter into the temptation of playing similar games. We need public funding for elections, but until we get that, at the very least voters deserve to know who is spending money to get a candidate elected. The Democratic Party should not be helping to hide it.
Note: When I ran for re-election to the ACDCC in 2012, I joined a slate of incumbent candidates. The slate put out a mailer which was produced by Alliance Campaign Strategies.
Marga Lacabe is an elected member of the ACDCC representing AD 18. These articles are meant to update her constituents on what’s going on at the party.