Gascón campaign accuses D.A. Lacey of flouting election law, but election experts disagree

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón
(Los Angeles Times)

In the latest round of sniping in a bitter battle to decide Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor, George Gascón accused Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey of violating election laws Monday, a claim met with skepticism by legal experts.

In a letter to the district attorney’s office, Gascón’s campaign alleged Lacey violated state criminal law and an election code by using public resources and displaying the L.A. County seal in campaign communications. Gascón’s campaign alleged the violations occurred as Lacey appeared on TV to debut an advertisement critical of Gascón and during two campaign events later that month, including one where she sought an endorsement.

In each instance, Lacey appears in front of a banner that displays the county seal and insignia of the district attorney’s office. Gascón, a former district attorney in San Francisco who positions himself as a progressive, will face Lacey in a November contest that has become a national referendum on criminal justice reform.

Jackie Lacey and George Gascón combine for more than 60 years of experience in law enforcement, yet their visions to run the nation’s largest local prosecutor’s office couldn’t be more different. The Times reviewed crime data, filing rates and other metrics to compare their respective terms in Los Angeles and San Francisco

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Max Szabo, Gascón’s chief spokesman, who authored the letter, alleged the images were filmed at Lacey’s office and used for campaign purposes, which he argued would violate laws governing the use of public resources during campaigns.

“District Attorney Jackie Lacey, a candidate for public office, has repeatedly, improperly and illegally campaigned either from a government office or with the use of taxpayer-funded equipment at home,” Szabo wrote. “Additionally, her use of an official county seal in her campaign appearances gives the impression of an official action or the validation of approval and support by the County. That has the affect of undermining the integrity of this very important election.”

Lacey’s campaign coordinator, Walter Koch, said in each case Lacey was in her living room. She was simply using pictures from her office as a background on Zoom, the popular video-chat program that has become ubiquitous during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Does George Gascón have anything better to do than complain about a Zoom background? D.A. Lacey is busy doing the people’s work during this time of crisis,” Koch said in a statement.

The California election code that Szabo cited only refers to campaign mail and documents, not television appearances or video chats such as the incidents Gascón’s campaign referred to in the letter. Two election law experts also dismissed the Gascón campaign’s complaints as dubious.

Bob Stern, who authored the state’s Political Reform Act, noted the Government Code cited in the Gascón campaign’s letter defines the use of a public resource as “substantial enough to result in a gain or advantage to the user” that would also need to have a monetary value. Stern said it was unlikely a brief appearance in an office or the use of a phone line would meet that standard.


Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, said even if Gascón’s campaign could prove Lacey was in her office at the time of the interviews or campaign appearances, it might not meet the threshold of a violation.

“Based on the context from the letter, these seem to be relatively minor infractions, if they’re infractions at all,” Hansen said.

Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, confirmed the letter had been received. He declined to comment on what action, if any, the office would take.