Billboard sleaze

The public should know about Clear Channel's political favors

EDITORIAL Clear Channel is one of the biggest media companies in the world, with more than 1,100 radio stations, more than 40 TV stations, and a massive outdoor advertising network with billboards in more than 20 countries. This conglomerate, much despised for undermining independent broadcasting in this country, does business with a lot of government agencies, including the city and county of San Francisco. Clear Channel maintains the city's bus shelters and runs the city's pedestal-mounted newsrack program, and sells ads on the shelters and the backs of news racks.

So when Clear Channel does a favor for a local politician, it ought to raise eyebrows immediately.

That's what's happened with Sen. Carole Migden. Just as she's fighting to defend local campaign reform laws (see "Gutting Campaign Reform," this page) Migden has been the recipient of tends of thousands of dollars' worth of free billboard ads from Clear Channel. The ads were facilitated by local company executive Michael Colbruno, a former Migden aide who remains close to the senator.

We've been concerned about the billboards since they went up. At first, as we reported on, Colbruno refused to say who had paid for the boards, insisting they were independent issue-advocacy ads supporting Migden's stances on the war in Iraq and rebuilding the state's infrastructure. Migden came clean a few days later and told us that Clear Channel had, in fact, provided the ad space free; she added that her campaign had paid for the printing, although her campaign manager, Richie Ross, now denies that.

At the very least it's awfully close to a legal issue: donors who sponsor issue-advocacy ads that promote individual candidates can't coordinate those efforts with the candidate's campaign. Otherwise the expenditure isn't independent at all and ought to be reported as a campaign contribution.

Of course Clear Channel can't contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Migden; the maximum contribution under state law is $3,600, and the company has already given her $2,500. "Therefore, presuming that the value of several billboards throughout San Francisco exceeds $1,000 dollars, Clear Channel has made a contribution to Carole Migden in excess of legal limits," states a July 16 memo from Reed and Davidson, a Los Angeles law firm hired by Migden's primary opponent, Assemblymember Mark Leno. (Read the entire memo at .

Migden may not be the only one involved in this Clear Channel scam; the company regularly sells or donates ads to local political candidates, and it's entirely possible that others have gotten either discounts or partial gifts from the conglomerate.

For starters we'd prefer that Migden, and everyone else who's running as a progressive in this town, eschew contributions from Clear Channel. But if such a powerful local operator is handing out favors, the details need to be made public, fully and immediately.

What was the actual value of what the company gave Migden? How closely was the deal coordinated with her campaign? What other local candidates have gotten free or cut-rate ads from this outfit?

The San Francisco Ethics Commission and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission ought to investigate — and if it turns out that what Migden has done is legal, then the State Legislature needs to figure out a way to ban it. Meanwhile, the San Francisco supervisors, who are about to approve a new bus shelter contract, should demand that Clear Channel first release a full list of its billboard beneficiaries. *