Campaign Finance Regulatory Mess in San Diego, Tainted Unions Fight Back

The Labor Council of San Diego & Imperial Counties (a.k.a., Committee on Political Education) and two other political committees appear to have violated San Diego campaign law by accepting contributions from groups or corporations and then spending money on behalf of City Council candidates, according to San Diego Elections Officer Joyce Lane. “They all think they’re operating under the law, but there is a lack of clarity in this area,” Lane said. “Our ordinance is pretty strict on its face. I hope the Ethics Commission will be able to provide some clarification. I do think it’s really murky.”

Recently, allegations of wrongdoing have flown back and forth between the Labor Council and the two other committees, the Lincoln Club, a Republican business group, and the San Diego County Republican Cent. Committee during the race for the 2nd District City Council seat.

The Labor Council did not accept money from groups during 2001 or 2002, but has in the past. It spent $14,200 on behalf of Donna Frye in the 6th City Council District special election in 2001. The two GOP committees have collected donations of up to $5,000 from organizations and corporations in recent years. Together, they then spent $45,000 on behalf of two Republican council candidates in the Mar. 2002 primary election, records show.

Under a city ordinance, committees that make independent expenditures cannot accept contributions from corporations or other organizations, only from individuals. And those contributions are limited to $250 per person per election.  Independent expenditures are those made by organizations on behalf of candidates; by law, however, they cannot be coordinated with candidates’ campaigns.

A Lincoln Club spokesman called the ordinance unconstitutional. Charlie Walker, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Comm’n, said he believes the law is constitutional. He said such laws are narrowly crafted to protect local races “against a corrupting influence with big money.” Representatives of all three committees contend that their groups are operating under guidelines or exemptions worked out previously with the offices of the city clerk or the city attorney.

Lane said the practice of collecting political donations from groups “is probably widespread” among political committees participating in local races. The practice apparently has been going on, unchecked, for years. “We missed it,” she said. “It was overlooked.”  Lane also said she has a record of a 1986 lawsuit settlement agreement that appears to exempt the labor group from certain provisions of the ordinance. “We’re doing what the City Clerk’s Office told us to do,” Donald Cohen, spokesman for the Labor Council said.

April Boling, treasurer for the Lincoln Club, disputed Lane’s interpretation of the Labor Council’s settlement agreement, saying it “does not apply to this particular alleged violation.”  Boling said her organization also segregates its funds, so that only donations of $250 per individual are funneled into local races, as advised by the City Attorney’s Office years ago. Lane said she has no record of such an advisory. Boling, who also is the Republican Cent. Committee’s treasurer, said a memo exempting that committee from the ordinance is on file with the city attorney.

Scott Barnett, executive director of the Lincoln Club, said his organization has tried to comply with the law even though the group believes the ordinance could be challenged. If the Lincoln Club is found to be in violation, he said, then the Labor Council should be as well, because the rules should apply equally to all committees.  “Who knows how many operate under similar understanding under the law?” Barnett asked. “If there’s a new interpretation that disallows what the Lincoln Club and labor have been doing, then the rules need to be made clear. Our goal has always been to meticulously follow the rules as best we can.”

The potential violations by the two Republican committees were referred to the Ethics Comm’n in early Apr. They were brought to Lane’s attention by officials with the Int’l Ass’n of Fire Fighters Local 145, after Barnett wrote a letter to the editor accusing the city firefighters union of skirting the law.

Local 145 and other labor groups spent a combined $64,000 on behalf of Michael Zucchet’s campaign for the 2nd District seat in the March primary. Zucchet, Local 145’s legislative director, is running against Kevin Faulconer, a public relations executive on leave from his job.

Barnett alleged that since 1993, the firefighters union has not listed the source of money it received and then used to make independent expenditures. Union bosses said the City Clerk’s Office told them they did not need to list that information. The source, they said, is members’ dues.  Lane said she can find no record indicating that the city told Local 145 they did not need to file that information. She said she is seeking clarification from the state Fair Political Practices Commission on what must be filed. [S.D. Union-Trib. 4/23/02]