A report going before the San Jose Ethics Commission is expected to clear Sam Liccardo’s mayoral campaign of breaking city fundraising laws, save for one count of improper disclosure.
In February, the councilman’s campaign admitted to getting a head start on lining up fundraisers. In one instance, a supporter invited guests to a fundraiser before money can be collected. Ragan Henninger, the campaign’s chief of staff, said the supporter's email invite was “totally a violation,” before later going on the offensive to say other campaign events were within the letter of the law. She argued, “This is what winners do."
On Tuesday, the commission received a report clearing Liccardo's campaign. The report, carried out by Hanson Bridgett LLP, noted that the lone violation out of 12 counts was minimal and corrected in short order.
The campaign's one misstep was not reporting $885.85 in in-kind contributions from a Dec. 13 fundraiser, according to the report. The event took place at the home of Mark Henderson, who spent $485.85 on food and beverages. Rick Holden, a co-sponsor for the event, spent $400 of his own money.
The investigation found that the event's costs were given to the Liccardo campaign but did not get listed on his first campaign disclosure form. On May 6, Liccardo filed an amended Form 460 to report the in-kind contributions, satisfying investigators.
“We found no intent on Respondent's part to deceive or mislead,” investigators write in their report. “To the contrary, Respondent cooperated fully with the investigation. We also suggest to the Commission that the violation itself is a relatively minor one, not rising to the level of severity ordinarily calling for imposition of a penalty. Upon notice of the violation, the Respondent took corrective action by amending its campaign reports.”
Former council candidate Steve Kline filed his complaint on April 7, leveling a variety of charges and demanding the Liccardo campaign return certain contributions. The report, however, cites a lack of facts to justify several of Kline's allegations, and in one case a misreading of Title 12, which regulates city elections.
“Six of the counts allege that the Respondent violated section 12.06.290's prohibition against soliciting contributions before the commencement of the campaign contribution period by soliciting pledges from up to 89 cohosts of six different fundraising events,” the report notes.
While some communications invited guests to fundraisers, there was no option to make online contributions, which, investigators say, kept the Liccardo camp in the clear.
“Consistent with the City Attorney's interpretation of Section 12.06.290, announcing a future event is not lining up a pledge of a contribution but is more properly seen as part of the planning and coordinating stage of fundraising activities,” the report states.
Liccardo’s critics have also suggested the deletion of events from his campaign calendar show a cover up was underway, but investigators determined that the campaign had a reasonable explanation.
“We spoke with Khan Russo, the campaign volunteer responsible for managing the website and posting the notices concerning the events. Mr. Russo explained, and provided supporting evidence, that when publishing an initial posting, the web management tool requires setting an end date for the posting. Mr. Russo's practice was to set up the website so that the announcement was automatically deleted when the event was over. We find Mr. Russo's explanation reasonable and find no intent on the part of Respondent to deceive the public, or the Commission, in the removal of the web postings once the event had been held.”
Liccardo did spend $3,045.34 of his own money, without first depositing it into his campaign account, before the fundraising window on Dec. 5. But there are no limitations on personal spending in a campaign, and investigators found that Liccardo did not violate the spirit of the law. By reporting the money as an expenditure, the report says, he showed no intent to deceive or hide the activity.
Liccardo’s kickoff event in October at SP2 also did not violate the law, the report found, as the deal worked out between the campaign and the restaurant/bar would be equivalent to what the restaurant would offer the general public.
The report is on the Ethics Commission’s May 14 agenda.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that the Ethics Commission has already accepted the report. San Jose Inside regrets the error.