Ma's moneybags

Burton-funded independent expenditures launch late hit pieces on Reilly

As many predicted, late independent expenditures on behalf of District 12 California Assembly candidate Fiona Ma are flooding into the race, aimed at tarnishing her opponent, Janet Reilly, with Web ads, TV spots, and mailers. To date, more than $750,000 has been spent by nine IE committees supporting Fiona Ma. In addition to the million dollars flowing through her campaign's piggy bank, that bumps her into the bucks-deluxe category of the 2006 primaries.

More than $500,000 comes from the Sacramento-based Leaders for an Effective Government, which got its initial funding from Ma's former boss and current political benefactor, powerful former senator John Burton. The other eight IEs are Californians United, Professional Engineers of California Government, Cause Law Enforcement Independent Expenditure Committee, San Francisco Association of Realtors, Peace Officers Research Association, Committee for a Better California, Teachers United with Firefighters and Correctional Officers, and Asian American Small Business PAC. All are based in Sacramento or Los Angeles and have an incestuous web of contributing organizations, in some cases with the same contact information (none of which returned Guardian phone calls).

The Reilly campaign made a big stink back in April when Leaders for an Effective Government spent $33,000 on pro-Ma mailers. The campaign filed complaints on April 27 with state attorney general Bill Lockyer, San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, and the Fair Political Practices Commission, claiming an illegal connection between the IE, Burton, and the Ma campaign. It still stands by those concerns, citing a state law that bans coordination between an IE and the campaign its spending benefits.

"Bullshit," Burton told the Guardian when asked about the complaints filed by the rival campaign. As far as his relationship to Ma's campaign goes, he said, "I don't have a fucking story. I'm helping her campaign." He claimed no connection to the half million spent on her behalf, but did admit to being a big early benefactor of Leaders for an Effective Government.

Ma is benefiting from the lion's share of that IE's spending, although it also spent $33,900 on the Johan Klehs campaign for California Senate. While Districts 18, 45, and 69 are seeing a lot of financial activity, no other Assembly race comes close to touching Ma's IE total, with the second highest clocking in around $300,000.

"It could be the most expensive primary race ever," Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, told us.

While an IE's intervention probably isn't illegal, "it has made campaigns dirtier," said Theis Finlev, a policy advocate for Common Cause. IEs have found new life breathing the polluted air of Proposition 34, passed in 2000 with the good intention of capping amounts of campaign contributions to control the financial investments of special interests. Unlike with campaigns, there's no limit on how much an individual can contribute to an IE.

"The point of limits is to look like you're not beholden to anyone, but this is a huge economy with many interests concerned about what happens in Sacramento," said Finlev. In addition to having no spending limits, IE committees disclose contributors at different intervals from campaigns and typically don't start spending money until weeks before the election.

"It's like a shell game," Finlev said. "Wealthy contributors can hide until after the election is over."