Two independent political committees supporting Los Angeles City Council candidates sent out campaign mailers that don't list the donors who paid for them — a practice that raises concerns among critics who say it undercuts city rules to make groups spell out their biggest bankrollers.
Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 6, a group calling itself Safe Neighborhoods & Better Schools sent out four mailers supporting the candidacy of Steve Veres, a community college trustee who is hoping to replace termed-out District 4 Councilman Tom LaBonge.
Both are “independent expenditure” committees, which can legally raise and spend unlimited amounts but cannot coordinate with the candidates they back. Under Section 49.7.33(b) of L.A.'s Campaign Finance Ordinance, any communications sent on behalf of candidates by independent committees must list at least two major donors.
In all six ads, the names of the independent committees supporting the candidates are listed but not who is providing the funding to send out the mailers. Both media campaigns are being run by Valley-based political consulting firm Shallman Communications.
Shallman spokesman Dave Jacobson said the committees had fully complied with city election law. At the time the printed pieces were sent out, he said, the committees had received no contributions greater than $1,000, the legal threshold for listing donors.
That explanation didn't satisfy critics, including Eric Hacopian, campaign consultant for Cindy Montanez, who is challenging Martinez for her seat. “There is only one word that can describe this, and that word is ‘impunity,’'' Hacopian said. “It is very clear that Nury and her supporters believe that our campaign finance laws do not apply to them.”
Nonprofit director Tomas O’Grady, one of more than a dozen candidates competing alongside Veres to replace LaBonge, said the practice was “not in keeping with the spirit of the law.”
“It seems deceitful,” O’Grady said after learning about the mailers. “Voters have the right to know who is paying for what.”
Another District 4 candidate, businesswoman Sheila Irani, argued that such committees should be “transparent and accountable,” even if it means going beyond law requirements.
City Ethics Commission officials said they could not comment or even reveal if an investigation of the mailers is underway.
But Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said the mailers raise concerns about a possible “loophole” for independent committees under the city rules.
“Even if this is legal, we need to tighten up the laws to disallow campaigns from using this loophole because it can result in independent expenditures evading the very purpose of the law,” she said. “That loophole is so big that it renders the law meaningless.”
After The Times inquired about the Martinez ads last week, a Shallman spokesman provided documents showing that Valley Families for Nury Martinez is being funded primarily by the city's police union and Jack Benadon, a Burbank tax preparer.
As of Wednesday morning, the Safe Neighborhoods group backing Veres had reported spending more than $65,000 on mailers, but had reported only two contributions of $1,000 or more — a $10,000 donation from Cordoba Corp.,a construction management firm that has done work for the community college district, and a $25,000 contribution from the Local 770 United Food and Commercial Workers Union political action committee.
Veres’ press secretary Brian VanRiper emphasized that their campaign had no control over the efforts of Safe Neighborhoods and other outside groups. “However, I hope those groups … not only follow the exact word of the law, but the spirit and intent of the law too,” VanRiper said.