State and federal campaign laws have long been rooted in the principle that the transparency of campaign contributions is the most effective way to discourage and expose special interests attempting to influence elections and public policy.
These laws establish strict rules for reporting of donors, their occupations and the amounts given in all local, state and federal elections. And because of past abuses, where major donors would wait until after the final pre-election reporting deadline to make contributions, in California any donation of $1,000 or more received within the final two weeks before the election must be publicly reported within 24 hours.
These requirements are the backbone of our election system, and those who are found to have violated the law face potential fines, or in extreme cases, criminal prosecution. The law does not provide a means of negating an election outcome or forcing a new election.
Palo Alto Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, the most experienced and longest-serving public official serving on the City Council and the top vote-getter in last November's election, was notified this week, as was Councilman Greg Tanaka last month, that the state Fair Political Practices Commission's enforcement division is investigating anonymous allegations that her campaign failed to make timely reports of contributions.
Tanaka's final post-election campaign report, covering the period of Oct. 23 to Dec. 31, showed that he received $48,000, more than half his total contributions, after Oct. 23. The FPPC will investigate complaints that he failed to include the occupations of several developers on his reports and did not report the value of a campaign sign on the building of the architect for 429 University Ave., a property owned by Elizabeth Wong. Wong's son, Andrew, had also made a $5,000 campaign donation to Tanaka, which Tanaka returned prior to voting on Feb. 6 to approve Wong's controversial project at that site.
The complaints against Kniss are potentially the most serious because they allege a failure to report in a required, timely manner a $2,500 campaign donation sent to her campaign by the California Association of Realtors PAC and other large donations, primarily from development or real estate interests. The Realtors reported they made the donation on Oct. 18, but Kniss didn't report receiving it until Nov. 18. She told the Weekly in January that her campaign treasurer, Tom Collins, was unable to process any contributions between Oct. 22 and Nov. 15 due to knee surgery and that the campaign was advised by the FPPC that if the envelope hadn't been opened it didn't need to be reported (a position that FPPC regulations appear to contradict).
The commission will also examine the reporting of other contributions Kniss received during this period, mostly from real estate interests and many without the required occupations listed.
The FPPC has not issued any notice to a third councilman, Adrian Fine, who also received substantial donations after the final pre-election campaign filing on Oct. 23, including six $999 donations from real estate interests. Although he reported receiving $26,000, about a third of the total money he raised, after Oct. 23, he was not required to report the donations under $1,000 until his final report filed in January, which he did. He also properly reported two contributions of $1,000 or more within 24 hours in the period leading up to Election Day. The $999 contributions, however, were clearly designed to avoid pre-election reporting requirements.
The laws and guidelines for compliance with campaign laws are well-documented and even novice political candidates have no excuse for not complying. An experienced candidate such as Kniss, who has run successfully in nine elections subject to the Political Reform Act, knows the legal importance of reporting large campaign contributions in the final days of a campaign and the responsibility to appoint an alternative treasurer if necessary to meet reporting requirements. It is disturbing if she did not do this.
We are pleased that the FPPC will investigate and render a judgment on what violations, if any, occurred in last fall's campaign. Everyone in the community should support this inquiry.
But regardless of the commission's legal findings, the actions of the Kniss, Tanaka and Fine campaigns in the handling of late campaign contributions established a new low for politics in Palo Alto that future candidates must commit to correcting. Kniss in particular, a political veteran who pledged not to accept financial support from developer or real estate interests early on in her campaign, owes her supporters and constituents an apology for reneging. And attributing the investigation to sour grapes by those who lost the election, as she told the Weekly, is a diversionary tactic unbecoming of such a successful politician.