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ELECTIONS SUPERVISORS : Patagonia to Leave VanderKolk Out of Ads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patagonia Inc. announced Tuesday that it will not mention county supervisorial candidate Maria VanderKolk in $9,000 worth of pre-election newspaper advertisements because it fears a county investigation into the legality of the ads could hurt her campaign.

The district attorney’s office confirmed that it began an inquiry Friday into a complaint by VanderKolk’s opponent, Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer, who alleges that Patagonia’s ads endorsing VanderKolk would violate a state law that generally limits corporate donations to a candidate to $1,000 a year.

Kevin Sweeney, Patagonia’s public affairs director, said in an interview that the ads would have been legal, but that they might have generated bad press for VanderKolk.

“We realize that in politics perception is reality,” he said.

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Patagonia, a politically active Ventura clothing company, pledged last week to spend $9,000 on a series of ads backing two slow-growth candidates--VanderKolk in the 2nd District and Glen Schmidt in the 4th District--for seats on the Board of Supervisors.

Schaefer immediately claimed that the ads would be illegal, citing a state law that places a $1,000 limit on ads that support a candidate if they are placed after consulting with the candidate or in coordination with the overall campaign.

Schaefer argued that because Sweeney admits to having acted as a strategist for the VanderKolk campaign, he could not legitimately claim that his company’s ads are independent of that campaign.

There is no legal monetary limit on ads placed independently of a campaign.

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Schaefer confirmed Tuesday that her attorney, Vigo G. Nielsen Jr. of Mill Valley, sent a letter of complaint to Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury last week.

“I don’t want to take away anybody’s right of free speech, but I play by the rules,” Schaefer said.

The letter by her attorney requested that Bradbury ask Patagonia not to run the ads, and threatened to go to court to block their publication if it would not withdraw them.

Schaefer’s attorney argued that Sweeney, who has insisted that Patagonia’s ads have nothing to do with his advice to VanderKolk on his own time, does not understand the law.

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Patagonia “simply cannot legally pay any amount for that support of VanderKolk after it has become knowledgeable about the needs of the VanderKolk campaign through its officer’s volunteer services as a VanderKolk strategist,” Vigo said in his letter to Bradbury.

Special Assistant Dist. Atty. Donald D. Coleman said his office called Sweeney on Friday and again Tuesday to question him about his involvement in the VanderKolk campaign. An investigator also called VanderKolk.

“I’ve committed to a factual inquiry to find out what occurred because it’s a matter of statewide interest,” Coleman said.

The issue raised by Schaefer is significant, the prosecutor said, because the campaign this spring is one of the first to test the provisions of Proposition 73, a 1988 ballot initiative that for the first time limited how much money contributors could give to candidates for state and local offices.

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“Absent a clear violation of law, I prefer to refer the matter” to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, Coleman said. “That’s the direction I’m leaning in right now.”

Patagonia still intends to run a series of ads before the Tuesday election to advocate the preservation of open space in Ventura County, Sweeney said. But the ads will not mention any candidate.

“They’ll be ads that could have run in an election two years ago or could run two years from now,” Sweeney said.

Schaefer’s attorney said the legality of the Patagonia ads will hinge on whether they imply that voters should support VanderKolk over Schaefer. That could occur even if they do not specifically mention the candidates by name, he said.

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In a press release, Sweeney acknowledged that he has assisted VanderKolk by giving her advice on campaign strategy.

“I talked during my free time with one of the candidates about how to frame a message and how to run a canvass,” he said in the release. “While I am certain that, if the ads had run, they would clearly have been independent, we recognize that in politics, appearances matter almost as much as legality.”

VanderKolk, responding to withdrawal of the ads, said, “It’s a disappointment, but I have to respect their decisions and I certainly understand.”

Patagonia, which employs 350 workers at its Ventura headquarters, turns over 10% of its profits to environmental causes each year, Sweeney said. The company is involved in the supervisorial campaigns because it thinks the preservation of open space is an important countywide issue, he said.

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Schaefer maintained that Patagonia is attacking her because she is a conservative Republican who is a moderate on growth issues.


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