Special interest groups circumvented state campaign finance laws by using Democrat Party committees to funnel more than a quarter-million dollars to a crucial Orange County assembly candidate, an investigation has found.
In a span of 18 days, late in the campaign, six Democratic county central committees contributed $292,200 to the Assembly campaign of Sharon Quirk-Silva, who defeated Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, by fewer than 5,400 votes. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in last-minute campaign funds secured Quirk-Silva’s election and helped Democrats gain their first super-majority in both houses of the state legislature since 1883.
The county party committees made the contributions to Quirk-Silva’s campaign within days and, in some cases, within hours of accepting contributions from the state’s most powerful special interest groups, including labor unions, corporations and a Los Angeles development group.
The Quirk-Silva campaign denies any wrongdoing or coordination of campaign finances between special interest groups and county party committees.
“The Sharon Quirk-Silva for Assembly campaign never requested more than the legal limit from any donor,” said Jason Mills, Quirk-Silva’s campaign manager. “The campaign had no discussions with any of the outside groups listed seeking to arrange contributions larger than what is required under California state law.”
State Campaign Finance Law Allows Parties to Serve as Cash Conduits
Individuals and businesses are limited each election to a maximum contribution of $3,900 per candidate. However, political party committees can accept substantially more than state candidates — $32,500 per election. Political parties can also transfer unlimited funds to state candidates. This system of campaign finance regulations allows parties to function as the middleman for interest groups seeking to support state campaigns.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the California Political Reform Act, has described this strategy as “money laundering” in a similar case involving two Republican legislators. In October, the FPPC alleged that Tom and Bill Berryhill circumvented state campaign finance rules by transferring funds through two Republican central committees during the 2008 campaign.
An FPPC spokeswoman said that the agency “cannot comment on a specific situation,” but confirmed no complaints have been received in the Quirk-Silva case.
Quirk-Silva’s victory has been called the “key to achieving the coveted supermajority” for state Democrats. When asked by the Voice of OC about the significance of Quirk-Silva’s upset, Assembly Democratic spokesman Steven Maviglio said, “This was the prize that made it happen.”
Given the state’s strict campaign finance limits, how could Democrats funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to a candidate in the final weeks of the campaign?
Same-Day, Same-Dollar Contributions to Central Committees
Campaign finance records show a pattern of large campaign contributions from special interest groups to party committees that were quickly transferred to Quirk-Silva.
On November 2, healthcare giant Blue Shield of California sent $25,000 to the Del Norte County Democratic Central Committee. The very same day, the party transferred the same amount, $25,000, to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
On October 17, the Del Norte committee also accepted a $25,000 check from PACE of CA School Employees Association, a labor union that represents 215,000 bus drivers, janitors and other school employees. On October 19, the Del Norte Democratic Party sent $10,000 to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
Could there have been coordination between the school employees’ union and Blue Shield to send $50,000 to the same Democratic central committee?
Del Norte Contribution: Blue Shield, School Employees Shared Lobbyist
In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that both the school employees association and Blue Shield share the same influential Sacramento lobbyist, Dave Low. At the time, health advocates questioned whether Low’s dual role posed a conflict of interest.
“The question is, does Blue Shield have access to insider information through these unions?” Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research told the Times. “It doesn’t look right.”
According to state campaign finance records, the Del Norte County Democratic Central Committee had accepted $204,524 in campaign contributions from January 1 to October 20. Based on this figure, the combined Blue Shield and school employees’ contributions represented a quarter of the committee’s total annual receipts. Yet, 70 percent of the funds were immediately transferred to a candidate more than 750 miles away.
Neither Low nor the Del Norte County Democratic Central Committee responded to email requests for comment.
Same-Day, Same-Dollar Donation from Disney to Democrats
In addition to the Del Norte County Democratic Central Committee, another county party processed same-day, same-dollar contributions. On October 19, the same day that Del Norte Democrats sent funds to Quirk-Silva, Disney Worldwide Services, Inc. contributed $10,000 to the Democratic Party of Orange County. The very same day, the party contributed the exact same amount, $10,000, to Quirk Silva’s campaign. The state’s campaign finance laws would have precluded Disney from making a five-figure contribution directly to Quirk-Silva.
Representatives for Disney and the OC Democratic Party deny that there was any coordination of campaign contributions for Quirk-Silva’s benefit.
“There was in no way any coordination regarding this contribution and to my knowledge Disney did not support or endorse Sharon Quirk-Silva’s race for Assembly,” said Nick Anas, executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County. “Disney Worldwide Services was a platinum sponsor for the 2012 Annual Truman Awards Dinner on Monday, September 17th, in which they agreed to a Platinum sponsorship of $10,000, which is detailed in our program book.”
A Disney spokeswoman corroborated the OC Democratic Party’s version of events— that the funds were for an event more than a month earlier. Anas added that the county party also contributed $10,000 on October 19 to the Yes on Measure BB campaign in Irvine, which passed and allowed city funds to go toward schools. And Anas said that on the same day the party also kicked in $10,000 to the campaign opposing Measure V in Costa Mesa. Measure V would have made the city a Charter City, allowing more leeway in limiting union power. Measure V lost. However, he confirmed, “No funds were earmarked.”
A.E.G. Had Financial Incentive to Defeat Libertarian Norby
More campaign finance irregularities can be found with a Los Angeles development group’s contributions to two Democrat central committees.
Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc., the Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment mogul that owns the Staples Center, contributed $25,000 to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party on October 18. Four days later, on October 22, the Los Angeles party sent a check for the same amount, $25,000, to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
A.E.G. wasn’t limited to one county party committee contribution. On October 19, the day after it sent $25,000 to the L.A. County Democrat Party, the party sent the same amount, $25,000, to the Kern County Democratic Central Committee. On the same day, the Kern County party committee sent $15,000 to Quirk-Silva in Orange County.
“There was no coordination,” claimed Candi Easter, the chair of the Kern County Democratic Central Committee. “We did not even know of the AEG contribution until after we had approved the donation to the Quirk-Silva Committee.”
Why would a Los Angeles-based company contribute thousands of dollars to party committees in the Central Valley and Los Angeles, which would in turn benefit an Orange County candidate? The answer may be found with redevelopment reform.
Norby, Quirk-Silva’s libertarian-minded opponent, has been a vocal critic of redevelopment agencies, which commonly benefit wealthy development companies at the expense of taxpayers and small businesses. In 2011, Norby was one of only a handful of state legislators to oppose SB 292, which was hurried through in the final days of the legislative year. The legislation created a special process for reviewing environmental challenges to a privately financed Los Angeles stadium, a project that would financially benefit the Anschutz Entertainment Group.
Los Angeles County Democratic Party: A Reliable Campaign Conduit
The Los Angeles County Democrat Party proved to be a reliable conduit for special interest contributions. Within days of accepting $137,250 in campaign contributions from seven special interest groups, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party distributed $127,200, or 93 percent of these received contributions, to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
On October 10, the L.A. County Probation Officers Union, AFSCME Local 685, contributed $10,000 to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. One week later, the Los Angeles County central committee contributed $11,700 to Quirk-Silva’s campaign in Orange County.
On October 17, Aecom Technology Corporation, a Los Angeles-based technical support services firm that specializes in environmental services, contributed $10,000 to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. The day prior, the party contributed the same amount, $10,000, to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
On October 24, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen contributed $25,000 to the Los Angeles County Democrat Party. Five days later, on October 29, the party delivered $10,500 in campaign funds to Quirk-Silva.
On October 26, the CDF Firefighters, which represents the state’s 4,000 members of the state’s firefighter union, contributed $25,000 to the Los Angeles County Democrat Party. Three days later, on October 29, the party contributed $30,000 to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
On October 31, the L.A. County Firefighters Local 1014 gave $25,000 to the LA County party, a contribution that was followed two days later by a $17,250 contribution from the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. On November 2, the Los Angeles Democratic Party sent a $40,000 check to Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
The incoming contribution from the carpenters’ union was filed on the same disclosure report as the outgoing funds to Quirk-Silva’s campaign. And 95 percent of the combined contributions from the firefighters and carpenters unions made their way to Quirk-Silva’s campaign via the Los Angeles Democratic Party committee.
State Candidates Funded Party Committees
In addition to financial transfers by special interest groups, state candidates provided cash infusions to both Quirk-Silva and Norby via party committees. In one instance, campaign funds were sent from one Orange County legislative candidate to Marin County and then back to a different Orange County candidate, all within seven days.
According to state campaign finance records, the Norby campaign accepted a $50,000 contribution from the California Republican Party on the same day that the party accepted a $50,000 contribution from state Senator Bill Emmerson’s campaign committee.
That contribution mirrors a legislative transfer to the Quirk-Silva campaign.
On October 24, Orange County Assembly candidate Tom Daly contributed $32,500 to the Democratic Central Committee of Marin County. On October 26, the party funneled $15,000 back to Orange County for Quirk-Silva’s campaign.
The Quirk-Silva campaign believes that the transaction by the California Republican Party proves there were no financial irregularities in the race.
“It can’t be a ‘finance irregularity’ as you allege, if our opponent was receiving similar contributions,” Mills said.
Both the Daly and Emmerson contributions, unlike the other party central committee transfers, were not preceded by five-figure contributions from special interest groups. State law precludes legislative candidates from accepting such contributions.
However, another Marin County Democratic Party contribution raises questions.
The same day that O.C.’s Daly sent funds to Marin County Democrats, the United Domestic Workers of America, which is based more than 500 miles away in San Diego, sent a $25,000 contribution to the same committee. Once again, the Marin County party held the funds for less than a week before sending it back to Southern California. On October 31, the Marin County party sent $30,000 to Quirk-Silva.
Ironically, all of this special interest money helped fund negative attacks on Norby. The charge: Norby has “special interest donors.”
(Note: This article may be republished, provided it is attributed to the author, John Hrabe, with a link to its original url.)