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FPPC to crack down on misleading campaign mailers

The Fair Political Practices Commission is cracking down on misleading campaign mailers, the agency’s director said Wednesday.

FPPC Chairman Dan Schnur said new rules for mailers are expected to be completed this month. The agency is the state’s political watchdog and enforces California’s campaign finance laws.

Schnur, a former Republican political consultant, was appointed in June. In August, he convened a task force of 14 outside consultants of various stripes and several agency staffers who have been meeting regularly to suggest numerous reforms to the electoral process in California.

The task force will hold their next meeting on Nov. 17. While they are considering changes to several aspects of campaigning, Schnur said they have already agreed informally on several new rules for slate mailers they are expected to finalize this month.

First of all, they are going to require that if a mailer contains the name of a political party, it must clearly state if it actually has an affiliation with that party. Several “voting guides for Republicans” slates went out this cycle that recommended Democratic candidates or positions on propositions that were different from the official California Republican Party recommendations. Another mailer appeared to come from the Green Party, but recommended Democrats and numerous proposition stances that were different from the party.
“One of the recommendations the task force is likely to bring forward is that any mailer that uses the name of a political party has to make it very clear if they are not affiliated with that party,” Schnur said.

Many of such mailers this year contained disclaimers that they weren’t from a party, but often in very small fonts, printed on a different part of the mailer than the actual recommendations. The new rules will likely set a minimum font size and state that the disclaimer must be visible on the same page as the voting suggestions.

These disclaimers must also be in the same language as the rest of the document, something that current rules don’t require. Schnur said that in the past he has seen mailers printed in Spanish, with disclaimers in English.

“As a former consultant, I thought, ‘This could be great, I’ll put all my disclaimers in Farsi,” Schnur joked.

Another issue they will take on is making it more clear when a candidate or initiative campaign paid for a spot on a mailer. While many mailers put an asterisk by a recommendation if it was paid for, that mark is sometimes small or doesn’t come with any explanation of what it means.

“We’ve explored the idea of replacing that asterisk with a dollar sign, but on the basis of sound legal advice, we’ll probably settle for a larger asterisk with a more visible representation of what it means,” he said.

This was also an issue this campaign cycle. At least two mailers to Republicans went out with dishonest characterizations of Proposition 19, the failed ballot initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The publisher of one of these mailers, Joel Fox of the Small Business Action Newsletter, the No on 19 campaign bought a spot that claimed the initiative “allows school bus drivers to smoke pot right before work.” While there have been numerous debates about how much power employers would still have to discipline and fire employees who used marijuana on their own time, it contained clear provisions allowing them to do so to employees who were impaired on the job. Fox said a No on 19 committee created by the California Chamber of Commerce bought the spot, not the main No on 19 Committee.

The late days of the campaign season found parties and people connected to them frantically sending out warnings of misleading mailers, with the Republican and Green Parties being hit especially hard.

A “Voting Guide for Republicans,” for instance,  makes the highly unlikely suggestion that members of the GOP vote for Democrat Bill Lockyer for Treasurer, instead of his Republican challenger, Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Tustin. It also urged “Republican voters” to oppose Prop. 23, even though the California Republican Party and a large majority of Republican voters support the initiative, which would indefinitely suspend the state’s AB 32 global warming law. It also stated that Republicans should oppose Prop. 20 and support Prop. 27, the exact opposite of the party’s position of these redistricting measures.

The “Californians Vote Green” slate card, meanwhile, had nothing to do with the California Green Party. But it was printed in green, with images of trees – and a suggestion to vote the straight Democratic Party ticket, with the exception of choosing Republican Steve Cooley for attorney general. Cooley has repeatedly been noted for his reluctance to pursue environmental enforcement as district attorney of Los Angeles.

The card also said nothing about the Prop. 19 marijuana legalization initiative, which has the support of 95 percent of Green Party county chapters in the state. The Green Party allows county organizations to vote on initiative endorsements. It calls for a no vote on Prop. 20 and yes votes on Prop. 22 and Prop. 27, when the state Green Party takes no position on any of those three. The slate urges a no vote on Prop. 25 and yes on Prop. 26, the exact opposite of the Green Party positions.

The Prop. 26 claim on the slate is particularly egregious, saying “26 makes polluters pay.” Much of the opposition to Prop. 26, which would re-label many fees and taxes and require two-thirds votes to pass them, is that it contains specific provisions that many say would let polluters off the hook when it comes to cleaning up their own messes.

“It’s interesting they need to pretend to be us to get votes, maybe I should take it as flattery,” said Derek Iverson, a spokesman for the state Green Party. He added that his party doesn’t “have the money” to send out large numbers of mailers.

Tracking down the companies behind these mailers can be difficult. CaliforniansVoteGreen.com is registered to Enom, Inc., a Bellevue, Wash., based domain wholesaler which allows the actual buyers of domains to remain anonymous. The “Voting Guide for Republicans” doesn’t even list a website one can visit.

When party organizations have fought back, it’s rarely over the use of words like “Republican,” “Democrat” or “Green.” But the Republican National Committee sent a cease and desist letter on Oct. 27 to Hart & Associates of Newport Beach for using the party’s registered logo – a red and blue elephant with three stars in it. The Hart version differed only in the use of two stars instead of three.

“Your use of a near-exact replica of the Official Elephant Logo of the RNC is an egregious attempt to deceive the recipients of your mailer,” wrote John Phillippe, chief counsel of the RNC. He warned, “Absent your immediate compliance, the RNC will pursue this matter to the fullest extent of the law.”

But Scott Hart, owner of Hart & Associates, said the “two-star” elephant is widely used in all sorts of private mailers, without the party filing suit. Hart identified two other “Republican” mailers which use the two-star elephant and make initiative recommendations that differ from the party, though he said he planned to comply with Phillippe’s demands.

“I just thought it was kind of ironic that the day after I receive their letter I got a mailer with the same elephant in it,” Hart said.

Hart’s recommendations did include the full Republican slate of statewide candidates. But on th
e eight initiatives where it gave recommendations, it differed with the party recommendations every single time, and that is likely where the complaints came from. In each case, he said, there is an asterisk by the initiative endorsement – which, if you read the fine print, indicates that the initiative campaign paid for it. Hart said he sells the slots to the highest bidder, but called himself “a good Republican” who may vote differently at the ballot box. He also said that there have been times when he refused to take someone’s money because he disagreed with their position, but declined to cite specific instances.

Republican political consultant Tony Quinn took issue with Hart’s choices, calling it “a fraudulent, slimy slate card” in a post titled “Exposing fraudulent slate cards” on, where else, Fox & Hounds.

“These cards are nothing but a cynical attempt to trick Republicans into voting against their own party so the vendors can make money,” Quinn wrote.


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