A Joe Coto fundraiser being held on the same day, and at the same location, as a symposium on education is blurring the line between political funding and nonprofit education efforts.
Coto, D-San Jose, is piggybacking his private fundraiser on top of a two-day symposium being sponsored by the nonprofit California Legislative Latino Caucus Foundation and the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
Fundraising letters promise that donors who pony up $10,000 for the education efforts of the Foundation will be allowed to attend the Coto fundraiser, as well.
The education symposium is being held March 22 and 23 at the Barona Valley Ranch near San Diego. It’s billed as a discussion of “Educational Equity in Schools” and will include speakers from UC Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and San Jose State. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and the Hewlett Foundation’s Mike Smith are also giving presentations at the symposium.
As the nonprofit, the Foundation is prohibited from political fundraising and political advertising.
Mike Welch in Assemblyman Coto’s office said of the symposium and the foundation’s efforts to raise money for the event, “it’s not a political fundraiser at all.”
The foundation sent out donor forms to people who have contributed to the Caucus in the past, asking them to sign up to underwrite the symposium.
At $1,000, you get your name or the name or your organization printed on symposium materials. At $5,000, you get program recognition and free hotel accommodations. At $10,000, you get all that and a round of golf at the Coto fundraiser being held following the closing of the symposium.
The cross-pollination of the foundation fundraising and the political fundraising concerns some campaign-reform watchdogs who are concerned about blurring the lines between political fundraising and the activities of a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization.
“The blurriness is at the intersection of campaign-finance law and federal tax law,” said Ned Wigglesworth, a policy advocate for California Common Cause.
Best-case scenario: “Coto is being opportunistic in his fundraising” said Wigglesworth.
Worst-case scenario: The foundation is using taxpayer money to subsidize the fundraiser. “If somehow the foundation is paying for a round of golf, that’s a political contribution.” And that’s prohibited by federal law.
But Coto’s legislative aide Welch said none of the foundation’s money is going to Coto or his election campaign.
“I don’t think there’s any connection between the two events,” he explained. The foundation is paying only for the speaking fees of some of the presenters and for their travel expenses. Lodging and meals are being provided by the Barona Valley Ranch. Welch said he didn’t know who was paying for the greens fees, but that they weren’t being charged to the Foundation.
That’s a good thing, said Wigglesworth. “If the foundation is not directly subsidizing Coto’s fundraising, then it seems OK. It’s not illegal,” said Wigglesworth. “But it’s a problem with nonprofit organizations that are controlled by elected officials. Donors are contributing money to further the interest of the elected official, but we don’t get to know who is paying.” Coto is chairman of the Latino Caucus and of the Foundation.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of this,” said Wigglesworth, explaining that in the wake of Proposition 34, both elected officials and donors have had to come up with new ways of funneling money, and influence, to legislators.
Bob Stern, with the Center for Governmental Studies said it was unusual to have this sort of configuration. “I don’t think they are doing anything illegal. It would have been better if they hadn’t combined the two events,” said Stern.
Professor Michael Kirst, who is attending the symposium to talk about a new study on education finance, said he wasn’t aware that the fundraiser was being tacked on to the end of the event.
“They have their rules about what they can do in the Legislature. As long as they are following those, I have no objections,” Kirst said.
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