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Battle over big spending in drive to recall Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch

Extraordinary spending in the recall campaign to oust Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch is turning into a clash over local limits on campaign contributions.

Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher has reported spending just over $295,000 on the recall campaign he and his family launched in October against Ravitch, according to a Jan. 27 public filing by the Recall Ravitch campaign. The sum is about 88 times above the $3,350 limit for individual contributions to recall campaign committees, according to Deva Proto, the county’s registrar of voters.

Ravitch, who has asked Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate Gallaher’s spending, said she believes the recall “is a smear campaign funded by an individual who, for whatever reason, has decided I should leave early.”

“It will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ravitch said, citing the cost of a special election that could be held 18 months before she plans to retire.

The dispute could test the ability of cities and counties to set spending limits for local campaigns.

Gallaher, through an attorney, said the county’s rules limiting contributions are unconstitutional. His Sacramento-based lawyer, Brian Hildreth, asserted Gallaher “has not exceeded any applicable contribution limit and has violated no provision of law.”

Enacted in 2000, the county campaign spending ordinance states that it was created “to ensure that the financial strength of certain individuals or organizations does not permit them to exercise a disproportionate or controlling influence on the election of Sonoma County candidates.”

“It appears this ’Recall Ravitch’ campaign is doing exactly what the ordinance is intended to protect against,” Ravitch wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to Becerra.

The Attorney General’s Office confirmed Thursday it is reviewing Ravitch’s request but declined to answer questions about the case. “To protect its integrity, we are unable to comment on a potential or ongoing investigation,” a spokesperson for Becerra said in an email statement.

The state imposes no limits to how much an individual can contribute to recall campaign committees, though local jurisdictions are allowed to enact their own rules, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the agency charged with enforcing state campaign finance laws.

Gallaher and the recall campaign believe the discrepancy between state and local limits is unlikely to withstand a legal challenge, Hildreth said. Local ordinances limiting these kinds of contributions “have been invalidated on constitutional grounds,” Hildreth said in an email to The Press Democrat.

“In fact, no statute imposing contribution limits on recall committees has been upheld by any appellate court in any state in the last 20 years,” Hildreth wrote.

County Counsel Robert Pittman defended the county’s ordinance and said that an individual contribution of more than $295,000 “is almost 100 times the permissible amount and clearly violates Sonoma’s local campaign contribution limits.”

“While we appreciate Mr. Gallaher’s opinion, the County’s campaign contribution limits have existed since 2000,” Pittman said. “They apply equally to traditional elections and recall campaigns. We have applied them to several recall campaigns in the past 20 years without challenge, and we are aware of no authority that has overturned an ordinance similar to Sonoma County’s.”

A violation of the county’s rules could bring a penalty of three times the amount of the contribution beyond the limit, which in this case, if valid, would be nearly $885,000.

There are few avenues to address the dispute.

The county’s ordinance hands responsibility for investigating violations to the district attorney. Ravitch asked the Attorney General’s Office step in because she’s the target of the recall campaign, creating a conflict of interest for an investigation by her office.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission also investigates possible campaign spending violations, most often when the agency receives a complaint. The agency has not received a complaint related to Recall Ravitch campaign spending, an FPPC spokesman said.

While the dispute remains unresolved, the Recall Ravitch campaign is spending money to gather signatures in support of Ravitch’s ouster.

Longtime political consultant Terry Price is leading the anti-recall campaign established to counter the Gallaher family’s efforts to push Ravitch out of office before her retirement. Price, who helped Ravitch’s first successful bid for office in 2010, said he and other Ravitch supporters are concerned the Attorney General’s Office will move too slowly and miss the opportunity to evaluate the legality of Gallaher’s spending before the recall could end up on the ballot.

“What we’re really looking for is quick action to stop what’s happening with signature gathering,” Price said.

Ravitch took office in 2011 and has been reelected twice. She oversees a $17 million department that reviews roughly 17,000 cases each year.

In late September, Ravitch announced publicly she would retire at the end of 2022 when her term expires. Less than one week later, Gallaher and his family initiated the recall campaign.

Gallaher, founder of Oakmont Senior Living, has been the sole contributor to the Recall Ravitch campaign, according to the Jan. 27 filing, which reported donations through Dec. 31, 2020. The campaign’s treasurer, Brandon Cho, has worked as site acquisition specialist for Oakmont Senior Living.

They launched the recall campaign less than two months after the company running Oakmont Senior Living care homes paid $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by local and state prosecutors over the abandonment of frail elderly residents during the 2017 Tubbs fire.

Prosecutors accused Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living and two related companies that own or operate the care homes, Varenna and Villa Capri, of leaving about 100 residents behind during the wildfires with no means to evacuate themselves. The civil complaint also accused the companies of failing to prepare staff to evacuate residents during emergencies and not notifying relatives about the status of their loved ones during the fires.

The settlement included an injunction requiring the companies create enhanced disaster and evacuation plans and hire an independent monitor to ensure they comply with the court orders.

The campaign has until April 19 to submit the signatures of 30,000 registered voters in Sonoma County to place a recall measure on the ballot, Proto said. If they succeed, the Board of Supervisors must call a special election before the end of September.

A special election costs between $250,000 to $400,000, Proto said.

Price said most recall campaigns grow out of grassroots movements in response to a political official’s actions in office, and he believes the recall effort targeting Ravitch lacks authentic complaints about her tenure.

“It’s one person with outsized influence because of the amount of money they’re able to spend,” Price said. “This may be an attack on the independence on the legal system and the District Attorney’s Office specifically, in my opinion.”

Most recall campaigns falter, including an effort to oust county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins last year and a brief 2017 effort to remove then-Sheriff Steve Freitas. The last successful recall of a county-level office was in 1976 when voters recalled two liberal, pro-conservation county supervisors Charles Hinkle and Bill Kortum.

Matt Rexroad, a campaign consultant for the Recall Ravitch campaign, said the allegations regarding Gallaher’s spending reinforce the need for the recall to move forward.

“In the campaign’s opinion, the elected District Attorney attempting to enforce a patently unconstitutional law, and using taxpayer dollars to do it, is just one more reason she needs to be recalled,” Rexroad said.

The Gallaher family has used its wealth to play an active role in Sonoma County politics.

In January, Gallaher’s daughter, Molly Gallaher Flater, almost single-handedly bankrolled a campaign to defeat efforts by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit to extend a quarter-cent sales tax funding the commuter rail system. Flater donated more than $1.8 million to NotSoSmart.org, the campaign against Measure I, according to campaign finance statements filed in July. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax extension in March.

Her husband, Scott Flater, spent a record $202,574 in independent expenditures to support three Santa Rosa City Council candidates during the November 2016 election, according to campaign finance statements.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct the first name of political consultant Matt Rexroad.

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