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State officials investigate L.A. County over ads appearing to support homeless services tax measure

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A screenshot of a TV spot sponsored by Los Angeles County that appears to support Measure H, the quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services.

State officials are investigating whether Los Angeles County violated state law governing political campaigns when it ran glowing television spots and generated social media posts that appeared to support a homeless services tax ballot measure, a spokesman with California’s political watchdog agency confirmed.

The March campaign for the quarter-cent sales tax, known as Measure H, was a multimillion- dollar effort backed by prominent businesses, labor groups and others. The tax is expected to generate $355 million annually that would be dedicated to services for homeless people.

For the record:
2:15 PM, Dec. 01, 2017 A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. President Jon Coupal as Cupal.

Officials with the Fair Political Practices Commission launched their probe after a complaint filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which contends that the county conducted an illegal political campaign by running ads with positive messages about the measure.

Attached to the complaint were screenshots of the county’s social media posts and television ads, which touted the measure as “real help” and “lasting change.” The ads featured inspiring music and mini-profiles of formerly homeless people, but stopped short of explicitly asking viewers to vote for the measure.

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Anchored by a giant star-studded check mark, the final frames ask viewers: “Are you ready? Vote March 7.”

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis group, said the county’s spending of about $1 million backing the measure was “the force of government putting its thumb on the scale of an election issue.”

“While public funds can be used for informational material that is balanced, it cannot engage in electioneering,” Coupal said.

The measure was approved with 69.3% of votes in favor. It needed at least two-thirds to pass.

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The FPPC can levy fines for violations of the state’s Political Reform Act. In this case, the watchdog agency will determine whether the county engaged in political campaigning and, if so, whether it should have filed campaign finance disclosure statements.

That finding could set the stage for a larger court battle between the Howard Jarvis group and the county because it is illegal for the government to engage in campaigning, Coupal said. The group could then file a lawsuit against the county and seek a permanent injunction, he said.

“It would be helpful if the FPPC came in and laid down the law,” he said.

The offices of the county supervisors either declined comment or deferred comment to the countywide communications office, which spearheaded the county’s messaging about the ballot measure. Joel Sappell, who heads the office, declined to comment on Thursday, citing the “pending investigation.”

But in previous emails to a Times reporter, Sappell referred to the ads as “educational outreach” that did not require the county to make campaign finance disclosures.

In a letter sent to the Howard Jarvis group, the FPPC indicated that similar TV ads and social media posts in fact do count as political campaigning.

The Howard Jarvis group’s attorney, Brian Hildreth, who wrote the FPPC complaint, sent the agency proposed television spots and social media posts against a possible tax measure in the city of Seaside. The advertisements were mocked up in exactly the same format as L.A. County’s ads supporting Measure H. FPPC officials advised the group that the ads would be considered political campaigning.

Hildreth said it’s even possible that county officials who approved political campaign spending can be held personally liable for reimbursing the government.

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“Spending taxpayer money for political purposes is very serious,” Hildreth said.


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