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L.A. County support for homeless services tax may have violated state law, watchdog says

L.A. County support for homeless services tax may have violated state law, watchdog says
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, center, at a Measure H kickoff event in 2017. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is examining whether L.A. County violated campaign law in promoting the tax measure last year. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The state’s political watchdog agency says Los Angeles County may have violated a California law regulating campaigns when it paid to run television ads in support of a homeless services tax ballot measure last year.

After a recent hearing, the Fair Political Practices Commission found probable cause exists that members of the Board of Supervisors violated the law by not reporting what amounted to political expenditures supporting Measure H.

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In social media posts and advertising, the county backed the measure for a quarter-cent sales tax by touting it as “real help” and “lasting change.”

The commission began investigating last year when the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. filed a complaint alleging that the county conducted an illegal political campaign, even though the messages stopped short of explicitly asking viewers to vote for the measure.

“This is obviously welcomed action by the FPPC. We have waited a long time for this,” Jon Coupal, the association’s president, said in a news release. “We hope these findings by the FPPC serve as a huge shot across the bow to all government entities in California not to abuse taxpayers by public funds for political activity.”

The commission’s move is a step toward declaring that the county and its board by its actions may have constituted a political committee required to report its expenditures on disclosure forms in accordance with the Political Reform Act, which California voters approved in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. The law regulates campaign financing, lobbying activity and conflicts of interest.

According to L.A. County Counsel Mary Wickham, county officials said they were “surprised and disappointed” by the FPPC’s finding, noting that it was preliminary and not a conclusion that the act had been violated.

She said her office would “vigorously” defend efforts to educate residents about Measure H and efforts to combat homelessness.

“We look forward to a full hearing on the merits and expect to prevail,” Wickham said in a statement. “This is all about informing and educating the electorate — putting out the facts so people can vote intelligently.”

The commission also found probable cause that the county failed to include its name and the required “paid for by” message on political ads during its effort.

The commission’s finding sets into motion a process in which the county could ask for another hearing before an administrative law judge, or settle the issue, which centers on cable and digital ads, totaling nearly $800,000, paid for with public funds.

The multimillion-dollar effort for the measure was also backed by prominent businesses, labor groups and others. The funds raised are to be dedicated to services for homeless people, and county officials have begun setting priorities for the funds.

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify the hearing procedure.

This article was originally published at 1:10 p.m.

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