Campaign debts hide donors' identities

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By Sarah Phelan

Moments after this week’s edition of the Guardian went to press, I got through to “notorious campaign attorney Jim Sutton,” as we describe him in this week’s article about campaign finance.

I’d been playing phone tag with Sutton since last week, wanting to ask him about all the accrued funds, or outstanding debts in this year’s election, and their role in hiding the identity of donators from the voting public, until after the election.

A master of the ins and outs of campaign law, Sutton, came across as charming and witty, as he told me about the Sutton Law Firm and its role in political campaigns:

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Jim Sutton

“We are a law firm. We bill for our services—and we fully expect our clients to pay in a prompt way,” said Sutton, pointing to the fact that the City law had been amended, so that candidates have to pay off their debts within 180 days of the election.”

But the amended rule that Sutton refers to does not apply to ballot measure committees—groups that raise and spend money in support of or opposition to specific measures on the ballot.

As of October 30, 11 such committees have formed, alongside the general purpose committees, such as the ones run by the Building Owners and Manufacturers’ Associations or the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which have been around for years and can make independent expenditures for or against candidates and measures of their choice, each election cycle.

I wanted to talk to Sutton, because in this week’s Guardian, we attempted to trace where the money comes from, goes to, and how and when it gets spent. Not to mention what happens to outstanding debts, some of which get paid off after the election, while others get forgiven—a late payment scheme that makes it hard for voters to identify who is really behind this or that measure.

“We are a vendor,” said Sutton of his firm’s role in the convoluted campaign finance trail. ”We are hired by clients. We give the same advice to our clients as to how to comply with the law, regardless of what side of any equation anyone is. What I love about being a political attorney is that I can tell my clients what they can or can’t do.”

Asked about the excessive accumulation of of outstanding debt by ballot measure committees and candidate committees that the Sutton Law firm advises, Sutton seemed to sidestep the question by noting that it’s campaign consultants, not attorneys, who are owed big time.

”The law firms are nothing, compared to the consultants,” Sutton told me. “We are a small law firm. We can’t afford not to get paid. If we do some work in July, we hope to get paid by August or September, though sometimes it takes a little bit longer.”

OK, but regardless of whether it’s Sutton’s law firm or Eric Jaye’s Storefront Political Media that is owed the big bucks, it’s clear that some political committees are spending way more money than they they have in the kitty, and reporting large debts as they approach the election finish line.

This debt system, in which bills are either paid off, or forgiven, after the election dust has settled, allows the identities of individuals and corporate donors to be hidden until after the vote. And if you spend any time down the rabbit hole of the City’s campaign finance database system, you can’t help but conclude that this looks like a loophole in need of some serious tightening.

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