As campaign gifts pour into the election accounts of Ventura City Council candidates, many political backers are staying anonymous by giving $99 or less because the law does not require candidates to report contributions under $100.
The top money-earners in the 1991 council campaign have built large war chests out of donations of $99 or less, according to public records and the candidates themselves.
Many City Council candidates say the majority of campaign gifts this year are less than $100 because hard economic times have pinched the pockets of Ventura's political donors.
Others, such as pro-business candidate Greg Carson, say the $99 figure is a helpful fund-raising gimmick.
Carson's campaign has raised thousands of dollars through his $99 Club, a series of fund-raisers that encourage donations of $99.
But some Ventura politicians say these invisible donations raise suspicions that candidates are using the law to avoid being tied to rich and powerful backers.
"I think it's unfortunate that the limit is so high," said Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for Patagonia Inc., the Ventura-based clothing company that is backing slow-growth council candidates Steve Bennett and incumbent Donald Villeneuve.
"Ninety-nine dollars is a significant contribution, and it's easy to hide contributions" using that amount, Sweeney said. "If people are raising several thousand dollars in $99 contributions, that's serious money, and I think we have a right to know where that money's coming from."
Carson's $99 Club has raised thousands of dollars at fund-raisers by encouraging single donors to give $99 and couples to give $150--and couples have given most of the money in $150 donations that appear on publicly available campaign finance reports, Carson said.
The first $99 Club fund-raiser, held at the home of Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) on Sept. 29, raked in $3,500 for Carson's war chest, which now totals $22,000 to $23,000, said campaign manager James Vaughn.
"It's a promotional thing, a fund-raising thing. But it's not meant to discourage claiming who gave the money, it's just a name we put on it," Carson said recently. "It was just a fund-raising gimmick."
However, incumbent Deputy Mayor Villeneuve said, "I thought it was awfully convenient that the price tag on going to Lagomarsino's dinner for Greg Carson was 99 bucks. Why wasn't it 100? Republicans have $100-a-plate dinners, and usually they're proud to go down there and show their support."
Villeneuve has raised about $7,500, most of it in donations of less than $100, said his campaign coordinator, Pat Hoffman.
"I am considered one of the front-runners," Carson said. "I'm the one who they're going to attack. I have raised more money than anyone else, but I know how to."
Mel Sheeler, who heads the Ventura Chamber of Commerce's political action committee, defended Carson.
The chamber, which has raised more than $7,000 in donations, $3,298 of it in gifts of $99 or less, is backing Carson and pro-growth candidates Jack Tingstrom and Tom Buford.
"So far, to my knowledge, none of the candidates we've endorsed have used any mudslinging or accusations against the people they're running against. And I wouldn't want to say that Villeneuve is mudslinging," Sheeler said. "But how could you comment on something unless you have a basis in fact?"
Some candidates have pointed out privately that Carson had an informal fund-raiser at the Hollywood Hills home of an old political ally, who played a major role in raising money from Orange County developers to back pro-growth candidates in the 1989 campaign.
In the past, Carson vehemently opposed accepting money from Orange County developers.
Carson acknowledged that his friend Fred Karger, who is vice president of the Dolphin Group, a Westwood-based political consulting firm, hosted the gathering because the two men once worked together in Sacramento on a political action committee representing the California Farm Bureau.
The Dolphin Group coordinated fund-raising efforts for a coalition of Orange County developers in 1989, which helped win the election of only one of five candidates they backed--Councilman Jim Monahan.
Carson said he received no money at the gathering at Karger's house.
But he said the guests, who included old family friends and former college classmates--but not Orange County developers--later sent him about $250 in donations.
Karger could not be reached for comment.
Slow-growth write-in candidate Bennett said his own campaign has raised about $8,000, three-quarters of it in donations of less than $100.
"If they're $25 and $50, it's just because that's all people can afford to give, and if it's $99, it's because people want to give as much as they can give without being reported," Bennett said. "And I'm not a $99 guy. I have one $99 (donation)."
But pro-growth candidate Buford, whose donations total more than $4,000, of which the majority of donations were under $100, said the recession has kept campaign gifts in Ventura small this year.
"The reality in 1991 certainly is that there are a large number of people who've been affected by the economy and other fund-raising efforts," Buford said.
"They are more likely either spreading it around to more than one campaign, or not giving at all."