Line blurred between Ed Lee campaign and "independent" expenditures

It's hard to tell Ed Lee's official campaign from the work of pro-Lee IEs (e.g. this book is the latter)

From the public's perspective, it's hard to tell where the official Ed Lee for Mayor campaign – with its $500 limit on campaign donations – ends and where the various independent expenditure campaigns that we cover in this week’s issue begin. And that’s a problem given their ability to raise cash in unlimited amounts, coordinate with one another, and essentially act in concert with the official campaign.

For example, when San Francisco voters recently got telephone calls that began, “Hi, how are you? May I speak with ______. My name is ______ and I am a volunteer for Mayor Ed Lee. Will you support Mayor Ed Lee this upcoming election?”

The average voter would probably assume that the caller was a volunteer for the Lee campaign, but the phone banking was actually done by a group called Committee for Effective City Management, although that was never identified in the script that it was required to file with the Ethics Commission.

Campaign consultant David Looman, who runs the group, disputed that interpretation, telling us, “It doesn't present as part of the campaign.” When we noted that was the obvious impression it left, he still wouldn't budge, “It doesn't say I'm a part of the campaign or anything of the sort.” When we asked whether they are required to identify themselves as an independent expenditure, he responded, “I'm not clear about that.”

Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix said it is a clear violation of the law for an IE to identify itself as part of the official campaign. When he read him the script, he responded, “I don't like it, but I can't say off the top of my head it's absolutely a violation because that isn't the exact name of the campaign, which is Ed Lee for Mayor 2011.”

But clearly, voters are left with the impression that it's a Lee campaign volunteer calling, right? “I think that's a legitimate layman's perspective on this, yes,” St. Croix responded.

Will the Ethics Commission do anything about this, or the numerous other campaign finance law violations that CitiReport, Bay Citizen, and other media outlets have been unearthing? Don’t bet on it, particularly because of the commission’s history of ignoring problems and overcomplicating its role in watchdogging even the most obvious violations.

For example, at tonight’s Ethics Commission hearing, the body is considering relaxing rules that require the reporting of big campaign finance expenditures within 24 hours, pushing that requirement back to the last week before the election -- right after the Guardian’s final pre-election issue hits the streets.