There’s an abundance of campaign financial reporting violations in 2020 and they’re being abetted with seeming disregard by the City’s chief elections officer, City Clerk Hosam Haggag.
These violations aren’t a matter of putting the wrong date on a form. They attack the fundamental principles underlying government ethics and campaign disclosure laws.
And they carry serious penalties. The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) can levy penalties up to $5,000 for each violation. Higher penalties can be imposed through criminal and civil actions.
PACs and Candidates
First up is a newcomer to Santa Clara politics, Silicon Valley MEPS PAC, Sponsored by Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Sprinkler Fitting Organizations.
MEPS sent a mailer in early October attacking District 1 candidate Harbir Bhatia. The mailer arrived in mailboxes around Oct. 10, the 24-hour expenditure report (Form 496) within 24 hours of incurring the expense, as required.
Why this matters: Late reporting leaves people in the dark about who’s spending money in elections.
MEPS’ main business appears to be CEQA “greenmail” complaints; one of which was lodged against the Agrihood project and evaporated as soon as the developer signed a union agreement.
Representatives of MEPS met with Mayor Lisa Gillmor in September, according to a calendar entry, and appeared before the Council attesting to “labor problems” at Levi’s Stadium, without evidence or even specific description.
In 2017, MEPS’ former director Josue Garcia lobbied the City Council to force the stadium security company to unionize, something that is completely illegal, but Mayor Lisa Gillmor nonetheless told the subcontractor that she would like to see a union agreement.
Gillmor’s longtime ally the developer-financed Santa Clara Police Association PAC — until this year the all-time big spender in City politics — has generally steered clear of outright FPPC violations.
But it became less transparent this year by not filing a quarterly financial summary and no longer includes its FPPC ID number on its mass mailers. However, the FPPC strongly recommends transparency over less, and such was the common practice in Santa Clara until this year.
However, since 2018, the police PAC conducted at least two push polls for ballot measures —within weeks of elections — that have never been reported.
Why this matters: There’s no transparency into where the money for the polls came from. As the police PAC gets the money it spends on political campaigns from developers, just stating that the police union PAC sponsored it is misleading.
Next, some residents of District 6 found candidate Robert Mezzetti’s campaign flyers attached to their mailboxes. By federal law, mailboxes are exclusively for receiving postage-paid U.S. mail and “only authorized U.S. Postal Service delivery personnel” are allowed to place items in or on a mailbox. (about.usps.com).
Why it matters: Although the USPS isn’t likely to prosecute Mezzetti (or Gillmor, who accompanied him Sunday afternoon distributing the flyers), the candidate is an attorney with a professional obligation to follow the law, as well as a potential City official who also shares that professional obligation.
It sets a cavalier example — that breaking some laws is OK — and undermines the City’s claims of high ethical standards.
Corrections: In the original version of this story we were incorrect on several points.
First, we were wrong about District 5 candidate Bob O’Keefe’s report. The firefighters reported a returned check to O’Keefe’s campaign in its Oct. 22 report, which also showed it being reissued. We regret the error.
An earlier version of this story alleged violations about FPPC reporting by a PAC sending a mailer that attacked candidate Harbir Bhatia. The name on the mailer is “Silicon Valley MEPS PAC Sponsored By Mechanical, Electrical And Plumbing Organizations.”
That’s the entity that sent the mailer and has FPPC ID #1390715. A search on this name returns no hits in the County campaign filings database, but does in the state Cal-Access database. Searching on ID #1390715 retrieves records for the PAC. This PAC filed the 24-hour expenditure reports in Santa Clara.
The entity that reported spending the money is the “Silicon Valley MEPS Issues PAC, Sponsored by Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Sprinkler Fitting Organizations.” This entity’s FPPC ID number is 1385998.
We also incorrectly named Josue Garcia as the current director of MEPS. A representative of MEPS says that Garcia hasn’t worked for the PAC in recent months. MEPS doesn’t appear to have a website and didn’t return our call on Oct. 12 for clarification of this and other points.
Garcia identifies himself as MEPS’ Director on the SPURS.org website.
We apologize for the mistakes.
When Informing Becomes Campaigning
Public agencies are prohibited from advocacy because people judge official agency communications differently than political campaign pieces. Using public money for campaigning is misappropriation of public funds, a felony punishable by up to four years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The City has distributed three official print and online publications that appear to violate FPPC rules: 1) the special mailer to residents on litigation, 2) a public statement about an HR software purchase, and 3) charts published on the City website by City Clerk Haggag.
Communication doesn’t have to encourage people to vote a certain way to be advocacy, according to the FPPC. The question is: is this communication outside an agency’s normal pattern, timing and style? Is the language inflammatory or slanted?
Santa Clara’s recent communications check off these boxes.
- The City’s 49ers litigation mailer [city litigation mailer 2020 1, city litigation mailer 2020 2] was the result of special City Council action, taken on Oct. 1 after team owner Jed York donated the first $250,000 to a PAC opposing Gillmor’s Council candidate slate.
The Council openly discussed its desire for the full color, glossy tri-fold to go out before the election — it arrived Oct. 11. Councilmember Karen Hardy told The Weekly, “It was apparent to me that they were trying to use City resources to sway an election.”
Why this matters: It used loaded and inflammatory language — “49ers Goals: Hide Spending” “self-dealing,” “secret,” “they want to spend public money” but “we want restore public trust.” No evidence is presented to support any of the broad claims.
This isn’t normal communication for City Hall. To anyone’s knowledge, Santa Clara has never published a litigation summary. The piece doesn’t discuss any other litigation the City’s involved in, including Santa Clara’s most visible recent litigation: the voting rights lawsuit and continuing appeal of the judge’s ruling.
- The public statement about purchasing HR software [city public statement about software 2020] for Levi’s Stadium is another peculiar City communication. Routine back office software purchases haven’t merited public statements in the past.
Why This Matters: This arrived in email inboxes on Oct. 14 following the litigation piece. Virtually nothing besides the title pertains to software.
If, as the City claims, stadium employees aren’t being paid properly, new software to correct that would be a welcome development. Instead, the first paragraph says, “The request is more evidence that the 49ers have not been properly complying…”
This is followed by more inflammatory language: “still committing wage theft,” “not complying with prevailing wage laws,” “not acceptable!”
The 49ers haven’t been charged with or found violating labor laws, but for the last year, Gillmor and City Manager Deanna Santana have insinuated this without providing concrete evidence of 49ers’ wrongdoing.
A version of the City statement, stripped down to the mayor’s inflammatory accusations, appeared on a captive news site controlled by the city’s PR consultant, Sam Singer.
3) Completing the trifecta of odd City Hall communications are a series of charts produced by City Clerk Haggag; again, something unprecedented in City history.
The charts show independent expenditures in favor of each candidate. The order isn’t an impartial alphabetical order. Instead, the data is shown with Gillmor’s candidates first, on the left, with challengers on the right.
Why this matters: Mere numbers make it look like the police PAC’s expenditures are minimal compared to Jed York’s, and work on the perception that because something is small it’s insignificant.
Numbers don’t account for the fact that, for four years, the police PAC has been the political powerhouse in the city with their money from Related, Citation, Prometheus, De Anza Properties (a Gillmor business partner) and the California Apartment Association.
Haggag started charting these numbers only this year, after the police union PAC was outspent. Similar charts for 2016 and 2018 would show the police PAC as the financial powerhouse. The police union PAC spent about $12,000 supporting Haggag in 2018.
There’s nothing stopping elected officials from starting their own PACs, raising money and campaigning. They just have to report it like every other committee.
The FPPC encourages people to report possible public agency violations at AdWatch, http://www.fppc.ca.gov/enforcement/adwatch.html.