OAKLAND -- Two weeks into her second mayoral bid, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan is terminating an independent campaign fund amid evidence that she had used it to skirt Oakland campaign contribution limits.
Kaplan's Coalition for Safe Streets and Local Jobs had come under intense scrutiny this month as she tries to build up her campaign war chest to compete with mayoral hopefuls who began raising money last year.
Political allies concerned in part by the fund's heavy spending on a Kaplan staffer had wanted her to do away with it. And, city council members discussed imposing new rules that would restrict the use of such funds to help candidates for elected office.
Unlike Kaplan's mayoral campaign committee which can't accept individual contributions of more than $700, her independent committee is free to raise unlimited sums. The only restriction is that the money must go to support Measure BB, a half-cent sales tax hike on the November ballot in Alameda County.
Good government advocates view candidate-controlled ballot measure committees as a loophole that needs to be closed. Current law, they say, allows politicians to get around contribution caps by raising unlimited sums for ballot measures and then using that money to curry favor with interest groups and promote themselves as much as the measures.
But campaign finance reports from Kaplan's last mayoral race in 2010 indicate that she went a step further by using the ballot measure account to help fund her mayoral race in violation of city and state election law. In at least one instance, Kaplan's ballot measure account, funded almost entirely by two contributions totaling $29,000, helped pay for a mayoral campaign staffer who didn't work on the ballot measure.
"That is clearly a way to avoid contribution limits," said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "She was raising unlimited money for her mayoral campaign that the law said had to be come in no more than $700 chunks."
Kaplan has been a driving force behind Measure BB, which would raise $7.8 billion for transportation projects throughout Alameda County. Still, key BB supporters representing developers and trade unions said privately they feared that Kaplan's ballot measure campaign would confuse potential donors and siphon money away from the official campaign fund. A previous version of the measure failed to meet fundraising expectations and lost by less than 1,000 votes in 2012.
Kaplan declined to answer questions about her ballot measure campaign last week. Her council aide and mayoral campaign manager Jason Overman wrote that Kaplan was confident in the official Measure BB campaign and would be "transferring a significant amount of money" to it when she closes out her committee at the end of the month.
"She'll continue to campaign actively for Measure BB, but will maintain only one campaign committee -- for her mayoral campaign" he wrote.
Kaplan formed her ballot measure committee while running for mayor in 2010 to support Measure F, an unopposed initiative that increased vehicle registration fees across Alameda County to pay for transportation projects.
The committee was funded almost entirely by a $25,000 check from Kansai Development, Inc. of San Francisco. Kansai's contribution came just two months after council members, ignoring the objections of city planning officials, voted unanimously to let the firm turn its vacant downtown property into a paid parking lot. The other major contribution was $4,000 from Michael Brubeck, who at the time was working on an industrial cannabis grow operation in Sacramento County. Brubeck declined to comment for this story, and Kansai's president, Peter Iwate, did not return phone calls.
With Kaplan's unsuccessful mayoral campaign accruing $30,000 in debt by the end of 2010, she paid five of her mayoral campaign staffers, including Overman, a total of $14,750 out of her ballot measure fund. Two of the staffers declined to comment on the payments.
Scott Hawkins, a political consultant who served as Kaplan's mayoral fundraiser, was paid $3,500 from the ballot measure committee even though he'd didn't work on it.
Overman wrote that Hawkins was supposed to raise money for both campaigns, but didn't.
Reached in Boston where he works, Hawkins, who also was paid $7,000 from Kaplan's mayoral campaign fund, responded that Measure F was never mentioned when he was hired. The only Measure F-related work he was asked to do, he wrote in an email, was produce a report requested by the mayoral campaign manager of "capped out" Kaplan for Mayor donors, titled "Measure F Prospects."
"Other than that, my time was fully devoted to helping Rebecca get elected mayor," he wrote.
Another former Kaplan campaign staffer, Jonathan Bair, said he did some fundraising work on Measure F after the November election, but that the successful ballot measure campaign never had a website or a Facebook Page. "I don't recall working on Measure F before the election, and I don't recall anyone on the campaign working on anything other than the mayoral campaign," Bair said.
Kaplan, who served as treasurer of the ballot measure committee, also gave a total of $12,000 to three organizations that endorsed her mayoral bid. The funds went to help pay for fliers, at least two of which prominently featured her as a mayoral candidate.
The use of candidate-controlled ballot measure campaigns was introduced locally by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, said Charles Marsteller, the former coordinator of San Francisco Common Cause. The practice remains more common in San Francisco than in Oakland. Other than Kaplan, the only mayoral candidate to control a ballot measure committee is Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, who was backing a health care initiative on the June ballot.
Kaplan, who has twice revamped her committee to support different ballot measures, might not actually have much money to lend the official Measure BB campaign committee. Although her committee raised over $53,000 from last July through the end of March for the measure, it also spent almost $30,000, campaign records show. Slightly more than half the expenditures were paid to Overman for campaign consulting even though the election was a year away. Several political consultants said it was highly unusual to do work and get paid so far in advance of an election.
"I think it's clear she's paying her consultant for doing either city council work or mayoral work and she's paying him out of another account to skirt the law," veteran consultant Larry Tramutola said when informed of the expenditures.
Overman, who made $47,313 as Kaplan's council aide last year, wrote that he worked on policy analysis, message development, polling data analysis, fundraising and accounting for the campaign. Confidentiality requirements on campaign strategy, he wrote, prevented him from further documenting his work.
Oakland's Public Ethics Commission would have jurisdiction to review Kaplan's use of her ballot measure fund, but no complaints have been filed.
Stern said that Kaplan's decision to terminate the fund was itself a victory for compliance. "It's a good thing," he said. "There won't be any question about it this year."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.