The sudden realization that most of San Jose’s lawmakers are law breakers is not the best way to end summer vacation. Not that they intended to end up on the wrong side of the law, of course. It’s just that, well, most of San Jose’s current elected officials didn’t really understand all that legal mumbo jumbo their predecessors cooked up. At least as far as it pertains to their own election transparency.
Earlier this summer, Manh Nguyen won a special election to fill the northside District 4 City Council seat. His victory was undercut weeks later, when he was fined $10K by the city’s ethics commission, which found that he repeatedly failed to disclose late contributions in a timely manner. About $280,000 of them. The city’s election code, Title 12, requires all candidates to file reports that note any contributions of $250 or more that were made between the last filing deadline and the election.
Nguyen’s media company was making tens of thousands of dollars in late in-kind contributions to his campaign. Those went unreported, leaving voters (but mainly campaign nerds) in the dark about how money was shaping the race. After he took the hit, Nguyen said the City Clerk’s office provided him bad info—and demanded an apology. That request had some merit, as he received a mea culpa letter from clerk Toni Taber this week.
But after taking a closer look at campaign filings of other council members who’ve run in the last year, as well as first-term Mayor Sam Liccardo, it seems nearly everyone has failed to comply with San Jose election laws. Liccardo hauled in more than 200 late contributions of $250 or more in the general election, but he only disclosed donors of $1,000 or above—the threshold required by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). His challenger in 2014, county Supervisor Dave Cortese, did the same thing. Council members who also failed to comply with Title 12's requirements in the last election cycle include: Magdalena Carrasco, Raul Peralez and Don Rocha. Other candidates who didn't make the cut and also didn't properly report: Xavier Campos, Maya Esparza, Paul Fong, Don Gagliardi and, of course, Nguyen’s opponent, Tim Orozco.
City Attorney Rick Doyle said it’s “clearly not a good situation” and there could be “some cleanup” required. Taber, the city clerk, said her office is in the process of reviewing last year's campaigns, but it's “possible all of them could have violated Title 12.’’ Because of the large number of documents the clerk receives and small number of staffers there are to review, most issues are only inspected when complaints come in, Taber said.
Where things go from here is anyone’s guess.
The clerk could issue fines to past candidates up to $100 per violation. That might not be an earth-shattering amount for most candidates, but it would be more than $10K for Liccardo and Cortese. Complicating matters, the city forces all campaigns to be closed within six months of an election, so almost all of these people would no longer have the ability to raise contributions to pay for any potential penalties.
From the city’s election code: