The City Council unanimously approved a tougher election reporting law four years ago aimed at shining a brighter light on who is funding the campaigns of San Jose’s elected leaders. But just about everybody who has run for office in the past two years has ignored it.
An analysis by this newspaper found that Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Rose Herrera and Councilmen Don Rocha and Pierluigi Oliverio have failed to report a combined $90,000 in contributions before Election Day as required under the stricter rule — even though all of them voted for the tougher reporting law in 2011.
But to underscore just how little attention is paid to the city’s stricter election law, neither the mayor nor many of his fellow council members who approved the measure even remember voting for it — and most now want to reconsider the rule. Ethics experts call the disregard for the law and lax oversight “troubling” and said it creates a double standard because residents are expected to abide by laws passed by elected officials.
“We shouldn’t have regulations for regulations’ sake,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
VIOLATOR ‘SINGLED OUT’?
The disclosure law has come under fire since the city’s Ethics Commission, which enforces campaign rules, slapped newly elected District 4 Councilman Manh Nguyen with a $10,000 fine for failing to report contributions as it required. Nguyen filed a $10,000 claim against the city on Tuesday, arguing that he was misled by the clerk’s office and unfairly targeted while other violators go unpunished. The Ethics Commission refused to reconsider Nguyen’s fine — even after learning violations were widespread and that City Clerk Toni Taber apologized to him for confusing information about the rules.
“I am deeply concerned that I was singled out by the ethics commission in what was a politically motivated effort,” Nguyen said in a statement.
The city’s law requires candidates to report within 24 hours all donations of at least $250 received in the 16 days before an election. The intent of the law is to make sure voters are fully aware of who’s funding a candidate at the time they cast their ballots. State law also has an “early warning” provision, but it applies only to contributions of $1,000 or more. That means it has limited effect in San Jose — where contributions to council candidates are capped at $500 and to mayoral candidates at $1,100 — which is why the council set its own rule with the $250 threshold in 2011.
A review of campaign finance records by this newspaper found:
Liccardo, a former District 3 councilman, failed to timely report $65,297 in donations during his 2014 campaign for mayor.
Herrera, who represents District 8, didn’t timely report $14,550 in contributions in the 2014 primary in which she ran for mayor.
Oliverio, who represents District 6, failed to timely report $6,700 in contributions during the 2014 primary in which he ran for mayor.
Rocha, who represents District 9, didn’t timely disclose $3,500 in contributions during the 2014 primary in which he was re-elected.
Most of those officials, like Nguyen, explained that they deferred to campaign staff, who in turn relied on advice from the city clerk in reporting donations from supporters. But the city’s Ethics Commission and state enforcement officials have said it’s still candidates’ responsibility to know the rules.
“There were thousands of contributions that needed to be reported,” Liccardo said, “and as you can imagine, I did not personally write all those down — that’s why you have a campaign team, right?”
All of the candidates eventually disclosed the unreported contributions in their postelection filings, but by that time voters had no opportunity to consider the information as part of their decision-making process.
Councilman Ash Kalra, who represents District 2 and also voted in favor of the rules in 2011, has not been up for re-election since.
Taber said that there were no violations of the tougher campaign reporting requirement in 2012, and the city had no local races in 2013. The only election this year was the special contest to fill the District 4 seat after Councilman Kansen Chu was elected to the Assembly.
MATCHING STATE RULES
However, the one candidate who appeared to abide by the rules, Xavier Campos, who also voted for them as a former District 5 councilman, said he wasn’t stumped by the city’s election law and had no trouble complying.
“I don’t think it’s confusing,” he said. “The rules are very clear-cut, and you have to abide by them. It’s not the responsibility of the clerk to hand-hold candidates.”
With his re-election bid last year weighed down by former boss George Shirakawa’s conviction for sending fraudulent campaign mail on his behalf in 2010, Campos lost a rematch to Magdalena Carrasco. According to the city clerk, she did not follow the reporting requirement in that race last year.
Liccardo and other city officials now say it may have been a mistake for the city to adopt a tougher reporting standard than the state.
“We’ve often made things more complex,” Liccardo said.
Herrera said she supports changing San Jose’s election law to match state requirements.
“It’s too confusing to follow two different laws,” she said. “Obviously there’s a problem if we all violated it.”
A political expert said confusion is not uncommon when local jurisdictions adopt rules separate from the state.
“What motivates these rules is showing you’re going above and beyond what is expected, but when it comes to the implementation — it can create lots of headaches down the road,” said Garrick Percival, an associate professor of political science at San Jose State. “It speaks to the importance of having staff that can interpret the law and voice expectations.”
According to Oliverio, “It’s pretty obvious we either have to improve the communications to make sure people understand or revert to what the state does.”
Rocha said he’s considering raising the issue with City Manager Norberto Dueñas to see how it can be simplified.
“I’m always open to making a change on something we may not have gotten right,” Rocha said. “I think this is one we can look back and say we didn’t get right. So why not make a change? I don’t mind admitting a mistake. We’re not perfect.”
Does the city council here pass laws to appear transparent or do they actually want transparency? And did they actually have a punishment for this law? If not then it was not really a law but a suggestion to pander for votes.
Sadly typical bullshit Guvment attitude these days.