The last time Don Perata was in a close election battle, he broke the law to win. It was 1998, and he was facing a tough fight against progressive Assemblywoman Dion Aroner. To beat her, he funneled an illegal $90,000 loan into his campaign just weeks before the election. Now, twelve years later, Perata is in another tough election fight, and interviews and public records suggest that he's broken several campaign finance laws in his effort to win the Oakland mayor's race.
On June 30, Perata loaned his mayoral campaign $50,000 from his consulting company, Perata Consulting LLC, records show. Under campaign finance law, loans are considered contributions, and the individual contribution limit from a corporation is $700 in Oakland. Although it's legal for candidates to give or loan unlimited amounts of their own money to their campaigns, it's not lawful for corporations to loan or donate money in excess of established contribution limits — even if the candidate controls the corporation. "If the candidate wants to donate as much of his own money as he wants to his campaign, he can — but not from his company," explained Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and former general counsel to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
Perata was fined following his 1998 campaign against Aroner for violating election laws involving loans. Just weeks before that election, he wrote himself a $90,000 check from his dying father's estate and then transferred that money as a loan to his campaign account. The last-minute infusion of cash helped Perata barely defeat Aroner. The FPPC eventually ruled that Perata had broken the law and fined him $4,000. But the ruling and fine came well after Perata had been elected, and so it didn't change the outcome of the race.
Two of Perata's main opponents in the 2010 mayor's race, Councilwomen Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, contend that he's doing the same thing now. "I think he figures he can just break the law and get away with it," said Quan, who has filed several complaints against the ex-senator with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission — complaints that likely won't be adjudicated until well after the election. "And I think he's betting that people won't care about it."
Recent polls show Perata barely ahead of Quan with Kaplan in third. "I think it shows that a candidate who was supposed to be the inevitable winner now believes he has to break the law to win," Kaplan said. "And what does it say about what he really 'believes about Oakland?' He must 'believe' that the voters of Oakland are pretty damn stupid."
Perata's campaign manager Larry Tramutola did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
Public records and interviews also suggest that Perata may be illegally using funds from a statewide campaign committee to finance his mayoral campaign. David Manson, a staffer for Perata's Hope 2010 committee, has been working on the former senator's mayoral campaign even though he's only being paid by the committee. Records show that Manson has received no pay from Perata's mayoral campaign, while earning at least $46,625 this year from Hope 2010, which is supposed to sponsor a 2012 ballot measure that would tax cigarettes to fund cancer research.
But Manson has been a very visible presence throughout Perata's run for mayor. The ex-senator even dispatched his employee to appear on his behalf at one of the mayoral debates, Quan and Kaplan said. It made for an odd set-up, with Manson appearing alongside the race's other nine actual candidates. "David Manson shows up at almost all the events," Kaplan noted. Perata himself has skipped the vast majority of Oakland mayoral debates.
It is illegal for a candidate to use resources from a ballot campaign to assist his run for office. And yet, earlier this year, Perata used cancer committee funds to pay for a mailer that talked about cancer research but appeared designed to enhance his mayoral bid. The two campaigns also share the same Oakland office and several of the same staffers. After this newspaper reported the ways in which Perata was blurring the lines between the two campaigns, Quan filed a complaint with the city's Ethics Commission.
In a short phone interview, Manson maintained that he's a staffer for the cancer committee, and said he merely volunteers for the mayoral campaign. He compared himself to Quan's city council staffer, Sue Piper, who also volunteers for her campaign.
It would be illegal if Quan was paying Piper from her council budget to work on her mayoral campaign. But Piper said she's a stickler for keeping her council work separate from volunteering on Quan's mayoral bid. She said, for example, that she sometimes receives questions about the mayor's race on her council office e-mail or phone and then tells people to communicate with her on her personal e-mail account and her personal phone. She also sends e-mail press releases about campaign events from her personal e-mail account and talks to reporters about the campaign on her personal phone. "I keep it very separate," she said.
There's also one big difference between Piper and Manson. Piper actually works for the city and earns her pay, but it's not at all clear what if anything Manson does for the cancer committee. Piper is a part-time council policy analyst who examines issues and proposed legislation. On the other hand, Manson's cancer committee does not appear to be involved in any active campaigning right now since the measure won't be on the ballot until November 2012. Asked exactly what he does for Hope 2010, Manson curtly replied: "That's not your business, sir," and ended the interview.
Perata Exceeds Cap
Perata's campaign has spent at least $594,000 in his attempt to become the next mayor of Oakland, thereby demolishing the city's expenditure cap of $379,000, according to campaign finance reports filed last week with the city clerk's office. It was the first time that a political candidate has ever exceeded Oakland's spending limit. Perata contends that he can ignore the cap because a Sacramento group with close ties to him has gone over the cap as well. That group, Coalition for a Safer California, which is run by a longtime Perata friend and is funded by the ex-senator's best donors, reported that it had spent at least $137,000 trying to get him elected.
However, Quan and Kaplan noted that it appears from campaign filings that Perata may have exceeded the city's spending cap before Coalition for a Safer California did. If so, then Perata broke Oakland law. The filings show that the Coalition for a Safer California reported that it spent more than the city's $95,000 cap for independent committees on September 16. But Perata's TV ads, which reportedly put him over the cap, too, started appearing right around the same time.
Kaplan, who is also now running ads on cable TV and ran them during her 2008 campaign for council, said that Comcast, Oakland's cable provider, requires payment before the ads air. "They told me it's a hard-and-fast rule," Kaplan said. "So reading the reports, it certainly looks like he [Perata] may be breaking the law."
Quan, meanwhile, reported raising $319,000 and spending $193,000 to date. She also reported loaning her campaign $155,000. Kaplan reported raising $139,000 through September 30 and spending $124,000. She also reported loaning her campaign $34,200. And, as with Quan, most of the contributions Kaplan received were small, $100 and $200 donations from Oakland residents. Perata, by contrast, received numerous maximum donations of $700 to $1,300 from individuals and groups outside the city.
Joe Tuman, who has been running fourth in the polls behind Perata, Quan, and Kaplan, reported raising $64,000, most of them small donations from Oakland residents. He reported spending $23,000 through the end of September. He also reported loaning his campaign $13,000.
Finally, Perata and several of his allies have been saying on the campaign trail that Ron Dellums also exceeded the spending cap during the 2006 mayor's race. But city records show the claim is false. Although Dellums originally reported spending $419,000 in the race, he later amended his campaign finance report, saying the campaign had made several overpayments that were subsequently refunded. In the end, Dellums reported spending $341,000 in total on the race. The city's spending cap that year was $343,000.