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Chamber PAC Campaign Violation Ruled a Mistake

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday November 21, 2006

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce PAC broke local campaign laws when it left its name and identification number off of a political mailer, but the omission was inadvertent, the city’s Fair Political Practices Commission ruled 6-0-1 on Thursday.  

The commissioners subsequently voted down a motion 4-3 to take the violation to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.  

Supporting the initial motion were Commissioner Chair Eric Weaver and Commissioners Jocelyn Larkin, Patrick O’Donnell, Dennis White, Stephen Bedrick and Gordon Gaines, with Commissioner Taymyr Bryant abstaining. (There are two vacancies on the commission.)  

Opposing the motion to take the question to the state were Commission Chair Eric Weaver and Commissioners Jocelyn Larkin, Patrick O’Donnell and Dennis White. 

Jesse Arreguin, a zoning board commissioner and member of the Rent Stabilization Board, filed the complaint Nov. 3, stating that Business for Better Government, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce PAC, “did not list anywhere on the piece who had paid for the mailing and the address of the entity that sent it. This action is clearly in violation of state Government Code Section 84305 and Berkeley Election Reform Act Section 2.12.325.” 

The mailer supported defeated District 7 candidate George Beier by pairing him with the more popular mayor, saying, “What do Tom and George have in common?” (Bates endorsed no candidate for the District 7 race.) 

There was no dispute that the Chamber PAC omitted required information. The question was whether the omission was deliberate.  

“It looks as if the committee’s actions were inadvertent rather than knowing or willful,” Deputy City Attorney Kristy van Herick, secretary to the FCPC, wrote in a Nov. 16 report to the commission.  

In a Nov. 13 letter to Van Herick, Chamber PAC treasurer Stacy Owens wrote: “…the committee did not become aware that the identification was not on the mailer until after the pieces had been sent. The committee hired a local designer who contracted with Modern Postcard, a mailhouse in Carlsbad, Calif., to print and ship the mailer. The mailer was shipped directly from Carlsbad, which did not give any committee member a chance to do a review of the final mailer before it went out.” 

Owens told the committee Thursday that the information “got dropped in the printing process.”  

Van Herick, who investigated the complaint, talked to the Chamber of Commerce, but called neither Modern Postcard in Carlsbad, which printed and mailed the piece, nor BBDI (Brand Guidance Design Intelligence), the local business hired to design its mailings. In a phone interview Thursday, she said time constraints prevented her from doing so and that the fact of the violation was not contested. 

On Monday, Michael Foster, the quality assurance lead for Modern Postcard told the Daily Planet in a phone interview: “We only print what we’re given.”  

Modern Postcard gets approvals from the customer before any printing is done, he said, noting they got digital files from BGDI.  

BGDI President Steve Donaldson was out of the officer for a few days and unavailable for comment. 

According to its website, BGDI, located on Fifth Street in Berkeley, has 20 years experience in advertising and direct campaigns. Its clients include Fortune 500 companies. “Steven Donaldson, president of BGDI, is intimately involved in every aspect of his Berkeley, California direct marketing agency, from initial strategy to final creative execution,” the website states. 

Speaking before the commission, Arreguin said he didn’t think the omission was innocent. “I think this is a deliberate action. It’s a violation of state and local laws.” Arreguin urged the commission to investigate further and subpoena the designer to “find out if it was a mistake.”  

Speaking for the PAC, Chamber President Roland Peterson defended the organization: ”We had no intention of being devious,” he said, explaining to the commission that as soon as the chamber discovered the error, it sent out press releases to local newspapers and put an advertisement in the Daily Cal to apologize for the error. 

But Dave Blake, who designed and produced the mailers for Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s successful District 7 campaign, called the Chamber response a “dog ate my homework answer.” Blake said the necessity of including the legally-required identifying data “never leaves my mind for a minute as I produce the literature.” 

Van Herick explained that if the commission believed the omission was deliberate, it could send the complaint to the district attorney. “That requires evidence of willful conduct. It’s not sufficient to show willful conduct,” she said. 

Commissioner Bedrick called on the commission to send the case instead to the state FPPC. 

But most of the commissioners agreed with van Herick that the omission was a mistake and that the complaint should not be pursued. “It does not met the threshold of willful conduct,” said Commission Chair Weaver. 

Arrequin said he is considering taking the complaint to the state FPPC. 

In other actions, the commission asked van Herick to continue to investigate a poll conducted in July whose questions touched on the Nov. 7 ballot Measure J and various local politicians. Payment for the poll has not been disclosed on any campaign expenditure forms.  

The complaint was filed Oct. 11 by Roger Marquis, treasurer for the Yes on Measure J (Landmarks) campaign, about a poll that some recipients said they thought was a “push poll,” a pseudo poll that actually is a marketing device, intended to convince recipients about something. The poll was conducted by Communications Center, Inc. of Washington State on behalf of San Francisco-based David Binder Research.  

Van Herick said she has had difficulty reaching those polled. Anyone who was polled can contact her at 981-6950.