The slick brochures arrived in Thousand Oaks voters' mailboxes in the weeks before last year's supervisorial election with an unrelenting attack on environmental candidate Linda Parks.
One showed a river of brown sludge pouring over a taxpayer's head and accused Parks, then a city councilwoman, of imperiling public health with her vote on a local sewage plant.
Another carried a series of unflattering shots of Parks and cited half-truths to suggest she was a liar.
Small print identified the ads' sponsors as the Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government. But figuring out who organized the group, and who was paying for the attack ads, was a lot more difficult.
In apparent repeated violations of state law, Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government failed to file any of its financial disclosure reports on time. Indeed, county records show that three reports were filed so late that the election was over before officials received them.
As a result, voters never learned that Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government was financed by a group of wealthy developers gunning for Parks' defeat. As a staunch slow-growth advocate, Parks had become a nemesis to local developers, who were backing her rival.
Even though the developers poured $53,000 into their attempt to taint Parks' candidacy, she managed to defeat Thousand Oaks businessman Randy Hoffman by more than 1,700 votes. But the stealth effort has not been forgotten.
Parks and other supporters of a proposed campaign finance reform measure use it as Exhibit A in their argument for why Ventura County needs an ethics commission to investigate suspected rule-breakers.
If the commission had been in place, they say, the developers' group would have been hauled before it and possibly made to pay significant fines. As it stands, a complaint filed with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission has so far produced no results, although an official at the agency said the investigation is still open.
"If you violate the law, there should be an automatic penalty," said Parks, who took over the 2nd District office in January. "But that's not occurring right now. With an ethics commission, I think you will have a greater chance of having accountability."
The commission's creation is just one component of a wide-ranging law proposed by Supervisors Steve Bennett and Kathy Long to control local campaign spending. It returns to the Board of Supervisors for more debate, and a possible vote, on Tuesday.
The proposed ordinance ties contribution caps to voluntary spending limits. For supervisors, the spending cap would be $150,000 per election. For countywide offices, it would be $500,000.
Candidates who accept spending limits could receive up to $600 per contributor without penalty, while those who do not would be limited to $300 or face fines.
Campaign reports would be posted on the Internet for anyone raising more than $25,000.
Although opponents have criticized the ideas of both contribution limits and spending caps, the ethics committee has generated the most controversy.
Opponents say it could become politicized because its members would be nominated by the supervisors. Also, it could become costly for the county to run in an era of tight budgets, they say.
Dist. Atty. Greg Totten last week questioned the need for a commission, noting that his office investigates allegations of campaign abuses. Each election, his office looks into 10 to 15 campaign-related complaints, Totten said Friday.
"We take this stuff very seriously," he said.
Totten said his office did not investigate Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government because no complaint was ever forwarded to his office. If a complaint had been lodged he would have turned the matter over to the state attorney general's office, Totten said, because one of the donors to the group, Thousand Oaks attorney Charles Cohen, contributed to Totten's election campaign.
Ventura Taxpayers for Responsible Government was formed in early December 2001, records show. The only listed officer on the group's organization papers is Treasurer Pamela Kelty. Kelty, an Oxnard certified public accountant, said she was unaware that any of the finance reports had been filed late.
"I was asked to [serve as treasurer] as a favor to a friend," Kelty said last week. "They said they would do all of the work and all I had to do was sign the reports."
Kelty declined to say who retained her. Los Angeles political consultant Rick Taylor, who also worked on the campaign, said he was hired by Cohen.
Taylor denied that Cohen or anyone else devised a deliberate strategy to keep the group's backers hidden from the public. He attributed the filing lapses to human error.
"In some campaigns years ago, that used to be a strategy," Taylor said. "But that was not a strategy in this campaign."
In addition to Cohen, reports show that the group was financed by Rick Caruso, the high-profile developer of the Grove at Farmer's Market in Los Angeles and the Promenade at Westlake, as well as a number of regional home builders. The largest contributor, at $25,000, was Miller Brothers Investments, the developer of the Dos Vientos subdivision in Thousand Oaks.
Parks and others say current state fines for late filings are not a deterrence to those who want to stay in the shadows. The Fair Political Practices Commission can assess a $10-a-day fine for each day a statement is late, hardly a punitive amount for well-heeded executives, she said.
But the reform measure being pushed by Bennett and Long calls for levies up to either $5,000 or triple the contributions not properly reported. That should be more effective, the supervisor said.
"You need something that will affect their pocketbook," Parks said.
Bennett said the commission would take the burden off the district attorney's office and remove even the perception of a conflict of interest. Other counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Kern, have created similar bodies to oversee elections, Bennett said.