This post has been updated.
The San Diego County Taxpayers Association made a late jump into the election this week, spending about $40,000 on radio ads to oppose Measure D.
The expenditure may have violated campaign finance restrictions.
Within 90 days of an election, committees that spend more than $1,000 for or against a measure need to disclose that spending within 24 hours of the message being disseminated. In this case, that means within 24 hours of a radio ad being broadcast.
But the political action committee for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association has so far not disclosed the purchase with the city.
“I am not familiar with any law that allows them to do that,” said Gil Cabrera, former chair of the city’s Ethics Commission, which enforces San Diego’s campaign finance laws.
Attorney Cory Briggs, who initiated Measure D — a plan to raise the city’s hotel tax and make it possible to build a new downtown convention center facility that could double as a football stadium – sent a letter to the radio stations playing the ads, alerting them to the disclosure violations and alleging that they too were liable for the violation. He told them to remove the ads from the air immediately.
Late Friday, April Boling, treasurer for the SDCTA committee, sent those same stations a letter telling them there was no violation.
Boling argues the PAC is not required to disclose the expenditure because it is registered as a general interest committee – meaning one that spends money on multiple issues and exists even after an election is over, as opposed to a committee created only to oppose a single measure and disappears after that election ends.
Since the group is registered with the county, Boling wrote, all it needs to do is file regular disclosure forms with the county.
“As a County General Purpose Recipient committee, we do not have the filing obligations that Mr. Briggs alleges,” Boling wrote.
Indeed, on Thursday afternoon, Boling filed a statement that summarizes all the money the committee brought in and all the expenditures it made going back to the start of July. The filing was registered exactly two minutes after Briggs sent an email to the radio stations alleging the violation.
The committee brought in over $130,000, mostly from the hotel industry. It received over $43,000 from Bartell Hotels, $80,000 from another PAC run by the San Diego Lodging Industry and $10,000 from a PAC run by a group of general contractors.
It also reported spending $46,000 with the advertising firm Manolatos Nelson Murphy to buy radio ads. Thursday’s disclosure also detailed the six radio stations from which the PAC bought airtime.
But Boling’s defense has some problems.
Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city’s ethics commission, does not comment on any specific allegations or situations involving specific people that might become investigations for the ethics commission.
But speaking generally, she said general interest committees that are filed with the county or the state still need to file any expenditures over $1,000 that directly deal with city measures with the city’s campaign finance system.
SDCTA still hasn’t done that.
“The idea is, city voters responding to an ad against a city measure would look to city resources to find a disclosure,” Fulhorst said.
Briggs has not yet filed a formal complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission or the city’s Ethics Commission. He said the most important thing at the moment is getting the ads off the air as long as the PAC is breaking the rules.
“Ask me on Nov. 9,” Briggs said of whether he plans to file a formal complaint.
Cabrera, though, said Briggs has little chance of getting the radio stations to take the ads down or of holding them financially accountable for the violation, as he warned in his letter.
“It is nearly impossible to stop an ad from airing,” Cabrera said. “That’s prior restraint – it’s a really high bar.”
Update: After this post was published, April Boling said the situation is unique because there doesn’t exist a committee specifically opposing Measure D. If there was, Boling wrote, in an email, the SDCTA PAC would have just donated to that committee. That’s what happened with Measure C, the Chargers’ initiative to build a downtown stadium, which the PAC has donated some $27,000 against.
Boling said she discussed the situation with Ethics Commission staff earlier this month and “there was agreement that reporting obligations change based on the existence or non-existence of a committee.”
But Cabrera said that doesn’t sound right to him.
“The existence of an opposing committee doesn’t trigger your disclosure requirements. It just doesn’t,” he said. “The rules don’t have any caveats related to an existing opposition. If they did, there would be a lot less disclosure in the world.”