California’s campaign finance laws serve an important purpose – they prevent contributors from using anonymity to control policy outcomes. By requiring disclosure of where campaign funds come from, the laws enable and empower voters to be able to assess the validity of campaign claims. Trust is established through the transparency of having enough disclosure so people know what they need to know about the candidates. Unfortunately, not all of the candidates in the upcoming election for the Board of Trustees of the Belmont Redwood Shores School District believe that it is necessary to comply with California’s campaign finance laws. The resulting lack of transparency from these candidates informs me whether I can trust them to be the best stewards for the education of our communities’ children.
On September 26, all candidates and political action committees were required to make filings in compliance with California’s campaign finance laws. I have approached all but one of the candidates and the committees supporting them to inquire of their filings to better understand who is supporting them (the one candidate who I did not approach made filings which I obtained directly from the San Mateo County election officials). The responses (or lack thereof) are telling. Only three of the candidates have complied with the law, Kelly Redmon completely ignored it, and there are significant transparency issues involving Amy Koo and Herb Neuman and a political action committee acting on their behalf.
The law allows candidates to make one of two different types of filings. The first is a filing which states that a candidate will raise and spend less than $1,000. The idea behind this disclosure is that this is a de minimis amount and does not allow for a contributor to exert outside influence on an elected candidate. The other filing is for use when a candidate may seek to raise and spend more than $999, and it also requires disclosure of the sources of the contributions, thus providing the transparency of who is behind a candidate and the messages the candidate is selling in support of his or her candidacy.
What I have learned from the school board candidates is that not all of them believe in the transparency that the system has established. Although some have made one or the other of the two types of filings, others have acted in disregard of the disclosure requirements.
Two candidates – Chuck Velschow and Suvarna Bhopale – have elected to spend less than $1,000 in support of the campaign, and have made filings with the San Mateo County election officials to that effect. This gives the appropriate disclosure.
Two other candidates – Rakesh Hegde and Naomi Nishimoto – stated in their filings that they may spend more than $999. However, Rakesh Hegde also stated that he had so far spent less than $1,000, and that he was the source of his funds. Again, appropriate disclosure. Naomi Nishimoto, on the other hand, did not fully complete her filing, and as a result it is unclear how she is funding her campaign.
One candidate, Kelly Redmon, completely failed to make any filings and did not respond back to me.
The last two candidates – Amy Koo and Herb Neuman – gave unsatisfactory information to San Mateo County election officials, and likewise, to all of us voters. Herb Neuman did not respond to my inquiries, but I was able to learn from the election office that he made a filing with that office stating that he intended to raise and spend less than $1,000. However, in public statements he has said something different. Last week Herb Neuman posted on his campaign website the following statement as part of a fundraising invitation:
“Vote By Mail ballots will be out shortly and I need to fund a direct mail postcard to get our message out before the early voters mail back their ballots. Such a mailing costs up to $10,000 for a single postcard.”
When I asked Herb Neuman to explain this discrepancy between his filings that he intended to raise less than $1,000 and his public statement that he intended to raise up to $10,000, he did not respond. On his campaign website he charges that “[t]here’s a lack of transparency,” but the only lack of transparency seems to be the one which he has provided regarding his campaign finances.
Unlike Herb Neuman, his running mate Amy Koo did respond to my inquiries and referred me to San Mateo County election officials for a copy her filing. According to the filing which they provided, Amy Koo also stated that she intended to raise and spend less than $1,000. However, she stated that she also had knowledge of a political action committee which had been primarily formed to receive contributions and make expenditures on her behalf – the American Dream Fund. Upon further investigation with the State of California, I determined that the American Dream Fund has told the state in its filings that it was NOT formed to support specific candidates in a single election. So which is it?
An examination of the American Dream Fund’s website (http://www.americandreamfund.org/) shows that it is campaigning for both Amy Koo and Herb Neuman (and interestingly, unlike Amy Koo who acknowledged the existence of the American Dream Fund, Herb Neuman did not do so in his filings with San Mateo County). Accuracy and transparency are the hallmarks of California’s campaign finance laws, but is not to be found from the filings being made by Amy Koo, Herb Neuman or the American Dream Fund. Furthermore, the American Dream Fund was required to make filings with San Mateo County election officials on September 26 to state who are its donors, but appears to have not done so. Just as with the individual candidates, I have reached out to the principal officer of the American Dream Fund, Carol Ford, to be able to obtain the information about who is funding the campaigns of Amy Koo and Herb Neuman, but she has failed to provide any response; just as the American Dream Fund has failed to inform San Mateo County election officials. The American Dream Fund asserts that if Amy Koo and Herb Neuman are elected, they “will bring dramatic change to the district.” If this dramatic change is to impose the same disregard for the law and casual treatment of transparency that has been done with California’s campaign finance laws, I will pass.