An interesting case involving false endorsement was recently before the Oakland Public Ethics Commission (PEC).

This Commission oversees compliance under the City Charter for several aspects of City government including the Campaign Reform Act, lobbyist registration, conflict of interest regulations and the Sunshine Ordinance. The Commision has authority to review policies and programs relating to elections and campaigns, investigate complaints of violations, mediate a settlement if possible, levy fines for certain violations, and make annual adjustments of City Council salaries.

At their meeting on Monday, January 9, 2007, [agenda (100KB pdf)] PEC Commissioners looked carefully at an allegation that an October ‘06 slate mailer, prepared by Voter Information Guide, misrepresented the Democratic Party as urging a NO vote on Measure O, the Instant Runoff Voting measure. It was at this point that Oakland’s False Endorsement Act came into play.

You can find the complaint and the slate mailer in this attachment (370KB pdf).

The False Endorsement Act provides that:

No person, within 45 days before any primary or general election held in the city of Oakland, shall knowingly pay for, direct, supervise or authorize the distribution of any campaign literature that contains a false endorsement if such person acts either with knowledge of the falsity of the endorsement or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the endorsement.

The complainant, Judy Cox, a member of the League of Women Voters of Oakland and prominent promoter of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), submitted a copy of the mailer as evidence.

Dan Purnell, executive director of PEC, researched voter pamphlets of Alameda County Democratic Party, East Bay Young Democrats, and Metropolitan Greater Oakland (MGO) Democratic Club. All of these indicated support for Measure O, the IRV law.

Purnell spoke with the owners of the slate mailer. They said they had independently decided to oppose Measure O and “had no idea” what the Democratic Party position was.

The Commission unanimously agreed that there was enough information to support the Cox allegation.

A few Commisioners noted they had received the mailer and were mystified as to its intent regarding Measure O and the Democratic Party. It required careful reading of the fine print to understand that the mailer was not official Democratic Party advice.

Slate mailers endorse or oppose a wide range of voting issues. In this instance the line was so blurred between what the Democratic Party opposed and what the owners of the mailer opposed that even a sophisticated voter could be confused.

The case will be referred to the Alameda County District Attorney, who could choose to prosecute an alleged misdemeanor violation.

The Commision action was taken despite a staff recommendation, authored by Purnell, to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the slate mailer organization “did not represent as a fact that the Democratic Party opposed Measure O in light of the notices and disclaimers appearing on the mailer.”

[Editor’s note: You might find interesting related articles concerning slate mailers produced by Voter Information Guide: “Slate mailers leave even savvy voters scratching their heads,” at the Capitol Weekly; “Election 2006: Your Fake Voter Guide Is In the Mail,” at the East Bay Express Blog; and Frank Russo’s “Two Lessons for California Voters: Don't Trust Phony Slate Mailers and the Tobacco Industry.”]

In another action by the Commissioners, Andrew Wiener was elected for a 3-year term. Since Wiener had previously served, then taken a year’s absence, he represents invaluable experience. This is important because there are two more empty seats that must be filled by mayoral appointment.

With a change in administration, it is hoped the vacancies will be filled promptly. The Ethics Commission has suffered in the past because mayoral appointments were allowed to sit empty.

There are seven seats on the commission: three are appointed by the Mayor with approval by the City Council; the other four are elected by the Commissioners from a pool of citizen candidates who have applied.

Executive Director Dan Purnell assured the Commissioners that he would submit the names immediately to the Mayor’s office. He also urged anyone who is interested in serving to contact him at or 510-238-3593.