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.