Major Bucks & Questionable Independence With Local Expenditure Committees

Independent expenditure committees, which in recent years have emerged as a part of a clever and what some call a devious stratagem to bypass local and state campaign funding limitations and campaign funding reporting laws and restrictions, this year have become major factors in two Assembly races in the heart of San Bernardino County as well as municipal elections in at least two of the county’s cities.
While these so-called independent committees operate under names and putative associations that often employ beneficent-sounding names and celebrate high-minded principles, in reality, the committees are neither independent nor beneficent and are engaged in bare-knuckled political tactics that eschew principle.
Independent expenditure committees evolved at the federal level before moving down the political food chain to become a staple of state and local politics, so the initial round of definitions and regulations relating to them were made at the federal level. State and local regulations in general mimic the federal regulations.
The Code of Federal Regulations, as contained in 11 CFR 100.16(a) and codified in 2003, defines an independent expenditure as an expenditure for a communication “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents.”
The Federal Election Commission defines an agent as someone who has “actual authority, either express or implied” to perform one or more of a list of actions on behalf of a campaign. It stipulates that
an otherwise independent expenditure would no longer be classified as independent and would be invalidated if an “agent” does something as simple as suggesting an advertisement be made. For this reason, there is supposed to be a “firewall” between the independent expenditure committee and its personnel separating it and them from a candidate and his campaign staff when that candidate is the beneficiary of the independent expenditure committee’s largesse. As a consequence, some groups claim that they sequester staff months before an election. With regard to federal elections, an organization making an independent expenditure must include a federally mandated disclaimer identifying the person or organization paying for the communication and stating that the communication was not authorized by a candidate or candidate’s committee.
Independent expenditures are distinct from and different than contributions.
Contributions normally consist of money, but sometimes can consist of goods, services or useful assets provided directly to a campaign. Candidates and groups then spend the money to pay for campaigns.
Under California law, independent committees, which obtain funding from a single source or pool funding from a variety of donors, cannot make direct contributions to a candidate and cannot legally coordinate activities with candidates or a candidate’s campaign. They can, however, undertake a whole host of campaign activities on behalf of a candidate or his or her campaign, independently. And unlike campaign donations, which are capped by state law or local ordinance, independent committees aren’t limited in what they can raise or spend.
In two of what appear to be the closest and hardest fought races for positions in the California Assembly representing districts in San Bernardino County this year the amount of independent expenditure money has climbed into the millions of dollars.
In the contest between incumbent Republican 40th District Assemblyman Marc Steinorth and Democrat Abigail Medina as well as in the intraparty Democratic race between incumbent Cheryl Brown and challenger Eloise Gomez Reyes in the 47th Assembly District, independent expenditure committee spending has surpassed seven figures.
Combined independent expenditures in the increasingly acrimonious slugfest between Steinorth and Medina had eclipsed $1.2 million by last week.
The California Alliance for Progress and Education, was one of the independent expenditure committees coming to Steinorth’s assistance, having provided $490,000 to the one-term Assemblyman from Rancho Cucamonga. That alliance drew some of its money from other independent committees, such as Keeping Californians Working, which is being bankrolled by Chevron and Farmers Insurance and residential construction and pharmaceutical industry lobbying groups.
The money provided by Keeping Californians Working and the money pooled by California for Progress and Education which helped Steinorth came in the form of ads opposing or “hit pieces” attacking Medina.
Medina, however, was not without her own independent backers. The largest of those so far has been the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which paid for a pro-Medina mailer.
While the independent expenditure money at work in the Steinorth-Medina race is nothing to sneeze at, both of the candidates’ own campaigns were functioning on larger sums of money being directly expended on their electioneering efforts.
As of October 25, Medina had accumulated, and nearly burned through, a $3.057 million political war chest. Steinorth had taken in more than $2.3 million in direct campaign contributions and had likewise expended most of that.
Nevertheless, Steinorth and Medina appear as mere pikers in comparison to Cheryl Brown and Eloise Gomez Reyes in terms of the independent spending going on in support of their campaigns. Independent expenditure committees have given Brown and Reyes on the order of five times – in excess of $6.1 million – than what has been spent in support of or against Steinorth and Medina.
Indeed, the independent expenditures relating to Brown and Reyes are larger than the money their respective campaigns have raised directly.
A single independent committee, Neighbors United for a Stronger Middle Class, provided $1.4 million for electioneering materials, ads and general political support on Reyes’ behalf. Neighbors United for a Stronger Middle Class is a coalition of the United Food and Commercial Workers and the California League of Conservation Voters and other entities.
Giving Brown support are the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, bankrolled in large measure by Chevron and Valero; Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, and Keeping Californians Working. The latter has given Brown over $1.5 million in independent help.
Two other independent expenditure committees, Californians For Responsible Government and the Inland Empire Business Alliance, are militating toward becoming major local political forces.
Californians for Responsible Government, of which Stephen Dunn is the principal officer and Jacqueline Dilley is the treasurer, has obtained over $102,000 from Randy Welty, the owner of at least seven adult entertainment venues and a partner in 52 medical marijuana dispensaries in California, and Welty’s associates. It has apportioned that money to efforts in Upland in support of Measure U, an initiative to legalize three medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, as well as sign and mailers in support of Upland mayoral candidate Debbie Stone and council candidate Sid Robinson.
Another independent expenditure committee, the Inland Empire Business Alliance, was also created, with Phil Cothran as the principal officer and Stephen Dunn as treasurer. Endowed with $5,000 from businessman Hae Park, $25,000 from developer David Weiner, $10,000 from trash hauler Burrtec Waste Industries, $20,000 from San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters Local 935 and a $23,537.47 loan from Cothran, the Inland Empire Business Alliance has sought to become a major player in both Upland and Fontana municipal politics and a lesser player in Rialto municipal politics.
The committee used $1,000 to support the city council candidacy of Lynn Hirtz in Rialto; $20,484.44 in support of the city council candidacy of Jesse Armendarez in Fontana; $3,065.75 to support Sid Robinson in his race for city council in Upland; $2,680.80 to support Debbie Stone in her race for mayor in Upland; $17,187.42 to support Mars Serna in his race for a position on the Fontana school board; and $15,418.45 to support Peter Garcia in his bid for election to the Fontana school board.
Of issue is the true independence of these independent expenditure committees.
Often, though not exclusively, independent expenditures are used to finance attack ads or “political hit pieces.” This distances the negativity from the candidate who benefits from the negative information. In many cases, however, the information revealed in these negative mailers originated with researchers working on behalf of the candidate who benefits from the mailer, a clear indication that the independence of the independent expenditure committees has been compromised.
According to state and federal regulations and law, the activity of the independent committees cannot be coordinated with the campaigns of the candidates who benefit from their assistance. But often, there is an appearance of coordination.
For example, in the case of Cheryl Brown, she made votes as a legislator that favored energy companies. Chevron then endowed the independent expenditure committees Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class and Keeping Californians Working with more than $1.5 million, which then collectively provided electioneering material in support of Brown’s reelection effort that was “independent” from her campaign. This circumstance, while suspicious, falls below the threshold of provability.
In the case of the Inland Empire Business Alliance, however, the patina of “independence” may have been shattered. The Inland Empire Business Alliance’s treasurer is Stephen Dunn. Dunn is also Upland mayoral candidate Debbie Stone’s campaign treasurer and he asserted at a public forum that he was her campaign manager, as well. Consequently, if challenged, it would be difficult for Stone, her campaign and Dunn and the Inland Empire Business Alliance and its principal officer, Phil Cothran, to convincingly maintain the $2,680.80 the Inland Empire Business Alliance used to support Debbie Stone in her race for mayor in Upland was not in some fashion coordinated among the parties involved.
This would be of some significance because Upland has an ordinance limiting the amount of money a candidate can receive from a single source to $1,000 per election cycle.

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