Around 40 current San Jose city officeholders and past candidates are under investigation by the city’s ethics commission for probably violating a strict local campaign disclosure ordinance.
The main arguments in their defense are that City Clerk Toni Taber told them it was OK and they didn’t realize the ordinance forbidding their actions had been passed, in 2011. Taber kept her job but apologized for not telling the politicians that city rules for disclosure were much tougher than the state’s.
The first indication that something was amiss came in July when the commission responded to a complaint and fined Councilman-elect Manh Nguyen $10,000 for filing late on $271,386 in contributions and not at all on $11,634.
The next month, the San Jose Mercury News reported that an analysis of violations going back two years showed that just about everyone ignored the same law Nguyen broke. That included Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Rose Herrera and Councilmen Don Rocha and Pierluigi Oliverio, who reportedly failed to report a combined $90,000 in contributions before Election Day.
Nguyen expressed a fear that he had been unfairly “singled out by the ethics commission in what was a politically motivated effort.” He is not alone now.
The law everyone is breaking requires candidates to accelerate their reporting of contributions in the 16 days before an election. They must report all donations of at least $250 within 24 hours. A similar state law has a much higher $1,000 reporting threshold and would rarely apply to San Jose campaigns. That’s why the City Council unanimously changed it four years ago.
The five-member ethics commission, appointed by the city council, said it is conducting the investigation to short-circuit what is expected to be a flurry of formal complaints against candidates, similar to the one that first brought Nguyen to their attention. The ethics commission is comprised of five members who are appointed by no less than a two-thirds vote of the Council.
“I think we would all like to find a way to keep this from continuing forever,” Commission Chairman Michael Smith told the Mercury News. “I don't think any one of us want this hanging over our heads for the next four years.”