July 8, 2014

Two things are clear about the allegations of campaign money laundering recently made against Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan.

First, after more than two weeks of public silence on the matter—at least, as far as I can see—it doesn’t appear that Ms. Kaplan has any intention of speaking to the allegations herself.

But second, the allegations are not likely to go away, not completely, not unless the Councilmember does speak to them and answer them in a way that satisfies a good portion of the Oakland electorate. That’s in large part because the campaign finance allegations cut deeply into two of the major arguments for choosing Ms. Kaplan as our next mayor: that she is a strong advocate for public transportation, and that she will take Oakland in a different, better direction than the corrupt politics of the city has so often led us in the past.

Though I rarely find myself in agreement with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, he’s right on point when he writes that Ms. Kaplan “has some explaining to do” on this issue.

So what are the allegations?           

In a June 21 Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group article, reporter Matt Artz wrote that during the 2010 mayoral campaign, Ms. Kaplan set up an alternate campaign finance committee separate from her regular mayoral campaign committee. Mr. Artz contends that this alternate campaign finance committee was used to help finance Ms. Kaplan’s two mayoral campaigns—in 2010 and again, briefly, in 2014 before it was shut down just before the Tribune article was published—and was designed to “skirt Oakland campaign contribution limits.” [“Kaplan Kills Scrutinized Independent Campaign Fund”].        

To understand what Ms. Kaplan’s campaign is accused of doing, you have to understand the “legal loophole” that exists between Oakland and California campaign finance law.        

The City of Oakland sets limits on how much money a single individual can contribute during an election to a candidate for Oakland city office. That same law also sets limits on the total amount a candidate can spend to run for Oakland city office. Combined together, these limits help to keep a handful of big-money donors from “buying” Oakland city elections, and that’s a good thing.        

Those campaign finance limits on spending and donations for election to Oakland city office differ significantly from state campaign finance law for statewide and local ballot measures.        

California campaign finance law, in fact, sets no limits whatsoever on how much money can be spent by a campaign committee set up to support or oppose a state or local ballot measure. California law also sets no limits on how much money a single individual can contribute to such a ballot measure campaign committee. And anyone can set up these ballot measure campaign committees, including someone running for public office at the same time.        

If you think about it for a second, you can see where the “legal loophole” lies between the two laws. Read closely, because it’s a little complicated.        

Using this loophole, someone could legally set up a campaign committee to support a state or county ballot measure while they were also running for mayor of Oakland. That committee could then raise money in unrestricted amounts from single individuals and spend as much money as it could raise, something the candidate could not do for their mayoral campaign. And while spending that money on promoting the ballot measure, the candidate could actually be using it to campaign for mayor, because they would be getting the extra publicity associated with their support for the ballot measure.        

You following me so far?        

Anyway, exploiting the state/Oakland campaign finance loophole is exactly what Oakland mayoral candidate Bryan Parker did earlier this year.

If you remember, Mr. Parker formed a ballot committee to support Measure AA, an initiative on the county June ballot to authorize an extension of Alameda County’s 1/2 cent health care sales tax. Money raised by the “Bryan Parker Committee For A Safer And More Equitable Oakland Ballot Measure Committee Supporting Measure AA” (the official name) was used to produce and air a series of television commercials. Those commercials featured Mr. Parker, an executive with a health care provider company, giving information about Measure AA and urging voters to support it. Meanwhile, of course, those same television commercials also helped to significantly raise Mr. Parker’s public profile in the mayor’s race at a time when he was still a relatively unknown candidate.

Whatever one thinks of this loophole in the campaign finance law, Mr. Parker’s actions in setting up his Measure AA finance committee broke neither the spirit nor the letter of state or Oakland campaign finance law, since the commercials never mentioned Mr. Parker as a candidate for mayor, and they actually did provide support for the Measure AA campaign.        

But while Ms. Kaplan set up a ballot measure campaign finance committee identical to they way Mr. Parker set up his, how she is accused of spending that money is decidedly different, and that makes all the difference in the world.        

According to the Tribune article, Ms. Kaplan formed a campaign finance committee in 2010 for the stated purpose of supporting Alameda County Measure F, a ballot measure designed to authorize raising public money for transportation projects in the county. But instead of using that money to help Measure F, Mr. Artz alleges in his article that Ms. Kaplan used the money raised to help finance her 2010 mayoral campaign.        

Mr. Artz then writes that Ms. Kaplan rolled over her ballot measure committee in 2014 for the stated purpose of supporting Measure BB, an Alameda County ballot measure designed to raise money for county public transportation projects and organizations.        

But again, according to the Artz article, Ms. Kaplan’s ballot measure committee did not use the money it raised to support Measure BB, but instead used that money to support her 2014 campaign for mayor. The article stated that Ms. Kaplan voluntarily agreed to dissolve her ballot measure committee shortly before the Bay Area News group published the Matt Artz article and turn any unused money over to the official Measure BB campaign.         

Does that sound familiar? Oakland residents with even a short memory will recall that this was almost exactly what former State Senator Don Perata was accused of doing during the 2010 Oakland mayoral election. Mr. Perata set up a committee to finance a state ballot measure to finance cancer research, but was accused of using the money raised to finance his mayoral election campaign. After that accusation surfaced in the public media, Mr. Perata terminated his state ballot measure and turned whatever money was left in the account over to various legitimate cancer prevention and cure organizations.        

When you’re accused of ethical violations similar to those of Don Perata, you’re in deep waters.         

If the allegations in the Tribune article are true, it would tarnish Ms. Kaplan’s reputation in two critical ways. First, it would severely damage her image as a “clean” officeholder and public advocate in a city that has seen too much Perata-inspired and Perata-type political corruption in our government in the recent past. Second, it would sully Ms. Kaplan’s credentials as a public transit advocate, since, if the allegations are true, it would mean the Councilmember siphoned off donor money for her own personal ambitions that at least some donors may have thought was going to promote a ballot measure to support public transit in the East Bay. That is, again, if the Tribune allegations are true.        

In a followup article to his June 21 piece, Mr. Artz reports a decidely weak denial of wrongdoing from the Kaplan campaign, writing that Jason Overman, Ms. Kaplan’s spokesperson “said that all staffers paid from the 2010 ballot measure campaign had worked on [the Measure F campaign].” Mr. Artz adds, however, that Mr. Overman “was not able to provide documentation” of that ballot measure work. (“Oakland Tries To Close Campaign Finance Loophole” Contra Costa Times June 26, 2014) Meanwhile, Mr. Artz wrote in his original article that “Kaplan declined to answer questions about her ballot measure campaign.”        

Since then, as far as I can tell, Ms. Kaplan has continued to remain silent about those campaign finance allegaions. And that can’t be.        

If Ms. Kaplan doesn’t agree with the Tribune’s allegations, she should say so, and provide an explanation. If she knows the allegations to be true, then both an explanation and a public apology to the citizens of Oakland is in order. Either way, it should be done in a public forum where Ms. Kaplan can be subject to questioning both by Mr. Artz and other members of the press. Some frivilous allegations can and should be ignored. This one is serious enough that it needs to be faced, not by a campaign subordinate, but by Ms. Kaplan herself.        

A mayor of the City of Oakland frequently faces allegations of wrongdoing either by themselves or by those under their supervision. If Ms. Kaplan ducks such allegations while running for mayor, it’s a good indication of how she would act under the same circumstances as mayor, if the citizens of Oakland decide to hire her for the job.        

On this one, silence is not an option.