Political watchdog found no campaign violation by U-T San Diego

By Amita Sharma,  / KPBS

The California Fair Political Practices Commission has concluded there is insufficient evidence to open an investigation into ad rates offered by U-T San Diego during last fall’s campaign season.

The commission, which is the agency charged with watchdogging campaign finance in the state, reviewed U-T invoices, a complaint filed by San Diego County Democratic Party Chairwoman Francine Busby and other information in reaching its conclusion.

In a letter to Busby dated June 7, Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the FPPC’s enforcement division, said, “After review of your complaint and the evidence obtained, we found no violation of the Political Reform Act.”

Winuk told KPBS and inewsource that the evidence was not sufficient to open a formal investigation.

“The issue was whether or not they afforded special treatment in terms of a financial discount to one party over another which could have potentially been an in-kind donation to a party or candidate,” he said. “Basically, they were offering rates and rate packages that were consistent to anyone else in any circumstance and that just varied by the type of  media that people were buying.”

The FPPC’s review followed an audit of advertisements by inewsource and KPBS, which showed different payments for ads. Campaign officials from San Diego mayoral candidate Bob Filner and Congressional candidate Scott Peters said they were quoted a price of $8,000 per full-page ad.

But according to the inewsource analysis, San Diegans for Reform in Opposition to Bob Filner paid $25,000 for 16 full-page ads. Former Congressman Brian Bilbray’s campaign paid  $25,000 for 27 full-page ads that either supported Bilbray or opposed Scott Peters, the analysis showed.

State law allows newspapers to offer ad discounts but they must report them as in-kind political contributions. inewsource could find no record of the U-T reporting the discount as an in-kind contribution to the anti-Filner PAC or the pro-Bilbray effort.

Chief Executive Officer John Lynch could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon. However, he earlier said that the U-T offered a package to campaigns.

“All political ads were paid as part of a bundle option used to attract political advertising and consistent with how we sell generally. The bundle was available to all campaigns interested in advertising,” Lynch wrote in an email. He declined to provide a copy of the offer or details of it.

Winuk provided few details of the FPPC review. He could not explain why two ads in favor of Proposition 32, a statewide initiative ran in the U-T on a single day. Proposition 32, which would have banned unions from using payroll dues for political purposes had it passed in November, was endorsed by the U-T.

After KPBS and inewsource reported about the U-T political ads in April, there was confusion about whether the FPPC had actually opened an investigation.

Ann Ravel, chair of the FPPC, tweeted: “an investigation has been opened” on the issue. Later that day, Winuk clarified the agency was only in the review process.Winuk said at the time that cases are reviewed for about ten days to two weeks before deciding to open “a formal investigation.”
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About Lorie Hearn:

Lorie Hearn is the founder and executive director of inewsource.