San Diego’s Ethics Commission votes to rein in independent committees

KOGO radio’s LaDona Harvey interviews inewsource reporter Joe Yerardi about this story.

Key Points

  • Ethics Commission votes to prohibit independent political committees from duplicating candidate-produced videos, audio recordings in advertisements
  • Rule change triggered by complaints about coordination during special mayoral race
  • Some experts doubt it will do much to limit spending by organizations that can raise unlimited sums of money from virtually any source
  • Rule must still be approved by city council, a move not expected before September

The San Diego City Ethics Commission took a major step Thursday to constrain the activities of deep-pocketed independent political committees.

Commissioners voted 6-0 with one abstention to forward a proposal to the San Diego City Council that would effectively ban such committees from using material produced by candidate campaigns in advertisements that the committees pay for.

Committees controlled by candidates and independent committees that support candidates are not allowed to coordinate activities. But complaints about independent committees essentially cutting and pasting candidates’ material prompted the Ethics Commission to investigate.

The proposal recommended by the commission , which the council could take up as soon as September, would have the practical effect of ending the practice of independent committees taking campaign videos published on candidates’ web sites, downloading them and paying television stations to run them as advertisements.

Specifically, the rule would expand the definition of “contribution” to include the republication and dissemination of many candidate campaign-created materials. Independent recipient committees like PACs as well as independent expenditure committees are almost always prohibited from making contributions of any kind to candidates for city office. So doing things like replicating candidate’s videos would constitute an illegal non-monetary contribution to a candidate’s campaign.

“We have real-life scenarios that we are trying to address where people are literally lifting candidate videos and producing and paying for their ad time on television.”

—Stacey Fulhorst

Unlike candidates whose campaigns can accept contributions of no more than $1,000 per election from an individual and $20,000 from a political party, many of these committees can raise unlimited funds from nearly any source: individuals, corporations, labor unions and practically anyone and anything else.

During the 2013-2014 mayoral race, independent committees raised and spent millions more than the candidates’ own campaigns.

INTERACTIVE: Click here for a searchable database and interactive map and visualization of campaign contributions.

After the meeting, Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst told inewsource her staff first began working on the proposal after receiving complaints that these committees were downloading materials from candidates’ websites during the mayor’s race and paying for their distribution as ads.

“Essentially, committees that have unlimited contributions were paying bills for candidate advertisements,” Fulhorst said.

During the meeting, Fulhorst urged commissioners not to lose site of the practical issue at hand.

“We have real-life scenarios that we are trying to address where people are literally lifting candidate videos and producing and paying for their ad time on television,” she said.

The commission voted to exempt a handful of campaign-created materials, including text, statements made by candidates at public events and the reproduction of up to three photographs, from the duplication prohibition.

The commissioners adopted the proposal as presented by Ethics Commission staff with only minor edits. The draft had already undergone extensive alterations since it was originally presented to commissioners in March.

“That’s where most of the money is”

Discussion of the proposal was brief, lasting less than 30 minutes. No members of the public showed up to speak. The measure had been debated at length over the previous four commission meetings.

The only sustained debate over the proposal came from Commissioner Andrew Poat. Poat expressed concern that the commission had not made enough of an effort to solicit input from political consultants and others who would be affected by the proposal. He abstained from the vote.

“He said, ‘Believe me. We’re all very aware of this motion that you’re making.’”

-Clyde Fuller

Fulhorst, the commission’s executive director, responded that emails had been sent to the agency’s “interested persons” list announcing the details of the proposal and inviting public input at every commission meeting since March.

Commissioner Clyde Fuller recalled a conversation he’d had about the proposal with an individual “involved in politics” at a recent social function.

“He said, ‘Believe me. We’re all very aware of this motion that you’re making,’” Fuller said.

“The impression I got is they’re very aware of it,” he added.

Tom Shepard, a veteran San Diego campaign consultant, told inewsource that he supported the proposal, noting that when it comes to independent political committees “that’s where most of the money is in politics right now.”

Shepard says he’s seen many candidates who will post scores of high-quality photographs, audio and video recordings to their websites with the expectation that independent committees will download the materials and reproduce them in the form of widely-distributed mail and television advertisements.

“I know of many campaigns that use their websites primarily as a vehicle for getting those graphic materials to independent expenditure committees,” Shepard said in an interview prior to the Ethics Commission’s meeting.

The larger problem?

But while Shepard supported the proposal, he believes that the Ethics Commission is applying a Band-Aid to an issue that requires surgery.

The larger problem, Shepard says, is that the limitations imposed on candidate’s own campaign committees have encouraged the phenomenal growth in these outside groups, free from hard caps on contributions and prohibitions on corporate and union donations.

“What voters thought was a relatively strict regulatory framework for campaign finance in San Diego has morphed into a system where most of the money that’s being spent in local campaigns is going through what are effectively unregulated committees,” said Shepard, president of Tom Shepard & Associates.

Shepard argues that a system where candidates are able to raise unlimited sums of money from any source so long as all contributions are immediately and fully disclosed would be a more transparent system than the current one and far easier to regulate.

Fulhorst disagreed, saying that even if one lifted limits on candidate contributions, independent committees would still exist to accept contributions from unpopular special interest groups and to run politically-risky attack ads against favored candidates’ opponents.

Unintended consequences

Brian Adams, a professor of politics at San Diego State University, said he understands why the Ethics Commission would undertake such a clarification of the rules but he believes it’s effect will be limited.

“Any well-funded independent expenditure committee will usually find ways around this,” he said.

Broadly speaking, said Adams, much of the campaign finance reform community has moved on from issues of coordination to other concerns.

Adams said there are other more pressing issues, pointing to the nonexistent disclosure of donors by politically-active nonprofits and the recent Supreme Court decision eliminating aggregate contribution limits.

Like Shepard, Adams believes that what started decades ago as an effort to limit the influence of large donors–by hard-capping contributions to candidates–has led to some unintended consequences.

“What’s happened is that over the past 20 years, 30 years, that an effort to try to limit large donations–to try to limit undue influence from large donors–has created a very complex finance system that isn’t very transparent,” Adams said.

The duplication proposal was the most significant of a number of proposals the Ethics Commission had been considering since March.

In June, the commission unanimously adopted a measure requiring independent political committees primarily formed to support or oppose candidates to pay in full at the time of purchase all advertising and prohibiting such committees from purchasing advertising on credit.

In May, the commission unanimously adopted a measure requiring that so-called “issue ads” that do not expressly advocate for or against a particular candidate but that do identify a candidate by name be accompanied by a disclosure identifying the political committee paying for the advertisement. This would bring the disclosure requirements for issue ads up to the same level of so-called “electioneering ads” that do expressly advocate for or against a particular candidate on which the committee paying for the ad is already required to be disclosed.

shadow-ornament

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Joe Yerardi:

Joe Yerardi
Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email joe.yerardi@gmail.com.