Questions Linger about Chamber PAC Election Contributions

By Judith Scherr
Friday January 26, 2007

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce political action arm spent $100,000 in a much-publicized attempt to influence local November elections and to direct the path of economic development in the city. 

But by filing campaign finance reports with the county rather than the city, the PAC may have made an end-run around a 2004 election law that attempts to limit—albeit to a small degree—campaign spending and to publicize that spending. 

The local law limits donors to $250 contributions, although there is no cap on spending and no limit on personal contributions. It prohibits corporate donations. 

“Local government should serve the needs and respond to the wishes of all citizens equally, without regard to their wealth,” the law says.  

Questions linger about whether the Chamber Political Action Committee—whose formal name is Business for Better Government, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce—has skirted the spirit and perhaps the letter of the law: 

• Why does a committee that endorses uniquely local candidates and issues file its campaign finance statements in the county offices rather than the city? 

• What relationship does the Chamber of Commerce have to its political arm? Is it independent of the PAC, as both the Chamber’s chair and executive director assert? 

• Who are the PAC’s board of directors? 


Filing with the county 

The PAC files its campaign finance statements with the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, rather than with the Berkeley City Clerk.  

In 1998 the chamber PAC was formed as a city committee, with the Chamber’s Chief Operating Officer Rachel Rupert as treasurer. In 2001, Mari E. Lee wrote then-City Clerk Sherry Kelly that she had become the new treasurer:  

“I am writing to inform you that owing to an expanded committee agenda, I have filed an amended [campaign reporting form] 410 with the Secretary of State designating this committee as a COUNTY committee….PLEASE CHANGE YOUR RECORDS TO REFLECT THE FACT THAT THIS COMMITTEE WILL NO LONGER HAVE ANY REGULAR FILING OBLIGATIONS WITH THE CITY OF BERKELEY.” (Capitals are in the original text.) 

Normally, a committee must file its statements with the city if it endorses local candidates and issues, according to Chamber PAC Treasurer Stacy Owens, speaking in an interview during the pre-election season. 

The Daily Planet reviewed the Chamber PAC’s filings with the county for the last five years—the only filings the county retains. They show that the Chamber PAC spent money uniquely on local races. Contributions were made to the Berkeley Democratic Club ($1,500 in 2002), Coalition for a Livable Berkeley-No on P ($11,000 in 2002), Committee for Fair Representation ($1,557.32 in 2002) and No on O ($1,245 in 2004). 

This year the money was spent unsuccessfully attempting to defeat Councilmembers Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington and on the winning campaigns to defeat Measure J, the landmarks ballot measure, and to support Mayor Tom Bates. 

Chamber PAC president Miriam Ng said on Wednesday that she thought the PAC filed its campaign statements with the city, but referred the Daily Planet to treasurer Owens, who did not return calls before deadline. (The Chamber PAC did a limited filing in Berkeley of November contributions. Owens explained at the time that the PAC was only obligated to file locally when it spends funds. The bulk of the fundraising—$61,000—was done earlier and reported only to the county.)  

There are at least two consequences of the Chamber PAC’s filing with the county rather than the city. 

One is that the city is very efficient in posting on its website every contribution that is filed—this gives the public the opportunity to know who is supporting whom. The county only posts campaign finance reports filed electronically—so if an organization does not want its campaign contributions posted on the web, it need only make a paper filing. 

The election law also requires the city to publish campaign donations in a local newspaper. The 2004 law includes an explanation for this exposure: “The influence of large campaign contributors is increased because existing laws for disclosure of campaign receipts and expenditures have proved to be inadequate.” 

Secondly, Berkeley’s campaign laws prohibit an individual from giving more than $250 to any candidate. That means that a donor can give a council candidate’s own campaign organization $150, but is then limited to giving only $100 more to a political action group filing under Berkeley law and supporting that same candidate. 

On the other hand, as happened in the November election, developer Patrick Kennedy was allowed to give the maximum, a $250 contribution, to Tom Bates for his campaign fund, which reported in Berkeley, but was also allowed to give $5,000 to the Chamber PAC, filing with Alameda County. That PAC in turn could have given all or a part of that $5,000 to Bates—but the public will never know whether they did or how much money was involved if so. 


Who is the PAC? 

During his re-election campaign, Worthington, targeted by the Chamber PAC for defeat, repeatedly asked for the names of the PAC board members, but was unable to get a response. 

During the 2006 election campaign, Chamber of Commerce Chair Roland Peterson wrote a letter dated Nov. 1 distancing the Chamber from the PAC, claiming that the PAC board is distinct from the Chamber board. He did not, however, say who the members of the PAC board are. The Chamber Board of Directors’ names are posted on the Chamber web site. 

“It is important to realize that the Chamber of Commerce is separate and distinct from the Business for Better Government PAC. They have separate boards and leadership. There is only a casual affiliation among the two, such as a shared address,” Peterson wrote. 

Last week, in response to a public query by Worthington and Spring at a City Council meeting, Chamber PAC President Ng sent a letter to councilmembers and to the Daily Planet naming the three PAC officers as herself as preident, Milton von Damm as secretary and Owens as treasurer. 

Reached by phone Wednesday, Ng said that the three served as the full board as well as officers. Asked if Chamber Executive Director Rachel Rupert were not the assistant treasurer, as the Chamber PAC filings indicate that she is, Ng conceded that Rupert, too, is an officer. 

Following up with an e-mail, Chamber CEO Rupert wrote: “Yes, I am assistant treasurer, but I only receive checks for the PAC and forward them to Stacy Owens. That is the extent of my current involvement.” 

It should be noted as well that Ng is listed on the Chamber web site as one of three vice chairs of the Chamber.  

Another vice chair is Jonathan DeYoe of DeYoe Wealth Management. While DeYoe is not named by Ng as belonging to the Chamber PAC board, a letter to the Daily Planet was sent on Nov. 2 on Business for Better Government letterhead signed by Ng and DeYoe, in which both identified themselves as Business for Better Government. 


PAC Ties to the Chamber 

When she spoke before the City Council at its Jan. 16 meeting, Rupert underscored the separation between the Chamber and its PAC. “I do no business for the PAC,” she told the council. “That was divided up so I wouldn’t be involved with the PAC.” 

At the same meeting, Chamber Chair Roland Peterson also distanced the chamber from the PAC, saying the Chamber does not contribute monies to the PAC. “Not one penny of membership dues goes to PAC activities,” he said. 

However, campaign contribution records show that the Chamber in fact gives money to its PAC. On Feb. 4, 2004 the Chamber contributed $200 as recorded on a PAC statement, and between Feb. 17 and April 18, 2006, the Chamber contributed $885.76, which went to Henry C. Levy & Company for PAC accounting services.