Vote-by-mail ballots go out today (at least in Orange County, and voters will begin marking their choices in a number of competitive races in Orange County. One of those is the race to succeed Supervisor Pat Bates in the 5th Supervisor District.
There are five candidates running, but the contest to make the November run-off is widely viewed as being between Mission Viejo Councilman Frank Ury, Laguna Niguel Councilman Robert Ming and Dana Point Councilwoman Lisa Bartlett. [Let me disclose up front that I am strongly supporting Ury.]
While Ury has been picking up steam since the new year, Ming’s campaign – after a burst of momentum during the last few months of 2013 — has begun to slow and lately has been dogged by a series of embarrassing revelations.
Pay Yourself First
Ming sprinted to an early fundraising lead, in large part by personally loaning his campaign $50,000. However, his campaign disclosure report for January 1 – March 17 of this year showed he had already paid himself back $10,000. – meaning nearly all of the $12,449 he raised during that period went to retire his campaign debt to himself.
When candidates begin paying themselves back for personal campaign loans weeks before the first vote-by-mail ballots are sent out, it definitely sends a mixed message to potential donors, who have to ask themselves if they are funding voter contact or repaying the candidate’s personal loan.
Ury Leads In Fundraising Momentum
While lagging behind Ming’s in the 2013 fundraising round, Ury outpaced during the initial 2014 reporting period, raising more than $16,000n between January 1 and March 17. Since then, Ury’s fundraising momentum has continued to build while Ming’s has stalled: Ury has raised an additional $11,350 since March 17 compared to just $3,000 for Ming (and $4,900 for Bartlett).
It’s worth noting that Ming and Bartlett have both made substantial personal loans to their campaigns – $50,000 and $75,000 respectively (Ury has not). OCPolitical.com blogger Chris Nguyen refers to this phenomenon as “the $100,000 paper tiger,” writing last year that “on rare occasions, a candidate may actually spend the money. However, 99% of the time, the candidates will not spend the money, as they are simply loaning their campaigns the $100,000 to inflate their warchests with every expectation of repaying the entire loan once the election is over.” Neither Ming nor Bartlett have loaned themselves that much, but the point stands.
While Frank Ury has conserved funds by running a lean operation, Ming’s has built up significant campaign overhead. By March 17, he had spent almost $44,000 before a single mailer had gone out. During the first 10 weeks of this year, Ming’s campaign spent $16,518 on consultants alone, plus another $3,833 on rent. That’s quite a burn rate.
While Ming did report $66,000 cash-on-hand in mid-March, $40,000 of that is a personal loan to the campaign. Given that Ming’s already paid himself back $10,000, it’s reasonable to wonder how much – if any – of that remaining $40K he’s willing to spend.
Ury has kept his expenses far lower, and the $25,509 COH he showed on March 17 is loan-free. As mentioned earlier, his fundraising has significantly out-paced Ming’s. Bartlett has also run a leaner show than Ming; like him, however, most of her COH consists of personal loans ($75K out of $89K). Unlike Ming, she hasn’t begun paying herself back.
Candidly, none of the 5th Supervisor District candidates has lit the world on fire in terms of fundraising, and the general consensus among political observers is that independent expenditure committees will play a large and possibly decisive role in deciding which candidates advance to the November run-off.
Questions About Ming Paying His Company From His Campaign Funds Swirl
According to Ming’s Form 700 financial disclosure report, he owns an LLC called IC Media. Ming’s supervisor campaign has so far paid IC Media $8,516 in the last year. If you add payments from his Laguna Niguel council campaign committee, Ming’s campaigns have paid IC Media nearly $20,000 since 2006.
Commenting to the OC Register and on his campaign website, Ming says he started IC Media in 1998 to sell Christian music online, but says it “remained dormant until 2008 when we reinvented it to provide catering, web design and staff support services for conservative candidates and companies.” He states that payments from his campaign to IC Media have been for web design and catering, and further states that he hasn’t been paid anything by IC Media.
At the same time, Ming’s explanation doesn’t explain who is being paid by IC Media to provide web and catering services to his campaign? I take him at he takes no money as owner of IC Media, and that none of the $20,000 paid by his campaign to IC Media has gone to him. To whom, then?
The IC Media matter has been raised in a series of e-mails from “john@email@example.com.” I don’t know who “John” is, and while he/she is anonymous, this person today posed some valid questions: Who are the paying candidates and companies who have contracted with IC Media, and for what services? Since catering is a taxable service, does IC Media have tax payment receipts for business catering services?
Show Us The Money
Every elected official is required to file an annual financial disclosure forms known as a Form 700, and those Ming has filed since being elected to the Laguna Niguel City Council corroborate his assertion that he’s received no income from IC Media. The weird part is that up until his most recent Form 700 (covering 2012), Ming’s disclosure forms show him receiving no income at all, from any source.
Given that he does have a job as senior vice president for investment banking firm Jefferies & Company, it’s strange that his primary source of income was never reported until 2013; and even it is stock ownership listed, not his job – appears nowhere on his disclosure forms. I don’t believe there’s anything untoward going on, but financial disclosure is kind of the point of a financial disclosure form.