A new legal opinion from the Oakland City Attorney’s Office will effectively allow ex-state Senator Don Perata to exceed the city’s spending cap in the mayor’s race and not have to worry about potential consequences until well after the election. The opinion, coupled with the city’s cumbersome process for investigating campaign finance violations, also likely means that voters won’t know for sure whether Perata has broken any laws until after they’ve cast their ballots.
Rebecca Kaplan, one of Perata’s main competitors in the mayor’s race, said the City Attorney’s opinion effectively means that Oakland “has no campaign finance law.” The opinion was prompted by questions Kaplan raised about spending by Perata and a Sacramento-group with close ties to him. That group, Coalition for a Safer California, recently declared that it had exceeded Oakland’s spending threshold for independent committees, thereby lifting all expenditure caps in the mayor’s race. And Perata appears to now have exceeded the city’s spending limit of $379,000 for mayoral candidates with a wave of recent cable TV ads.
Kaplan noted that Perata and the Coalition for a Safer California have effectively turned Oakland’s campaign finance law on its head. The law was written in the 1990s to allow a candidate to exceed the expenditure cap if some group spends large sums attacking that candidate. But a loophole in the law also lets Perata benefit from a group that supports him — Coalition for a Safer California — by allowing him to overspend if it overspends, too. Coalition for a Safer California is run by Perata’s longtime friend, Paul Kinney, and is primarily funded by Perata’s primary employer, the state prison guard’s union, thereby also raising questions as to whether Perata has been coordinating with the group in violation of state and local laws. Kaplan called Perata and the group’s actions a “new low” in Oakland politics. She noted that Perata had promised early on to run an ethical campaign.
Kaplan and Councilwoman Jean Quan, who is also running for mayor, had contended that the Oakland Public Ethics Commission should decide whether caps have been lifted in the mayor’s race. But the new legal opinion, written by Supervising Deputy City Attorney Mark Morodomi and signed by City Attorney John Russo, said that there is no provision in Oakland law for the Ethics Commission to make such a finding. Instead, the opinion essentially says that Kaplan, Quan, or someone else will have to file a complaint against Perata with the Ethics Commission before it can be determined whether he has gone over the $379,000 cap in violation of city law.
However, such a complaint likely can’t be made until at least next week, when candidates file their campaign finance statements. And Dan Purnell, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, indicated in an interview that it could take weeks, perhaps months, to fully investigate such complaints. The investigation would have to include an examination of whether the Perata-linked group actually exceeded the city’s cap or not. In other words, there likely won’t be any determination before the election as to whether Perata has broken the law. Dan Siegel, Quan’s campaign attorney, described the city’s bureaucratic process for investigating campaign lawbreaking as “glacial, on a good day.”
The only hope that Kaplan and Quan may have of stopping Perata from effectively buying the election is the Oakland City Council. Tomorrow, the council’s Rules Committee will take up a request by Kaplan and Quan to clarify Oakland law so that a candidate can’t just start overspending if some group says it has overspent, too. The councilwomen want the Ethics Commission to make a determination first before caps are lifted in a race. Kaplan also said that she plans to introduce legislation to fix Oakland’s campaign finance law.