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An Orange County supervisor, whose use of taxpayer-funded mailers last year prompted California lawmakers to limit such communications, is again drawing scrutiny for using public funds on flyers, this time potentially to benefit a political ally running for state Assembly.
Supervisor Andrew Do sent more than 88,000 county mailers this year advertising events that he co-hosted with Westminster City Councilman Tyler Diep, who’s running in a heated race for Assembly District 72. Most of Do’s communications, which cost taxpayers $31,000, were sent in the weeks before this year’s primary and general elections.
It’s legal for politicians to use publicly-funded mailers to tell residents about government events. But watchdogs argue that Do’s mailers for Diep skirt the spirit of that law, and that Do has repeatedly abused publicly-funded communications to gain an unfair advantage over political foes – accusations Do has denied.
Bob Stern, a government ethics expert and co-author of California’s 1974 Political Reform Act, said that while Do’s recent mailers are likely legal, they’re a “creative way” to bypass laws aimed at curbing the practice. He added that legislators should look at amending state law to close what he described as a legal loophole employed by Do.
“Clearly, in my mind, (the flyers were) designed to help the Assembly candidate increase name recognition,” Stern said.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Stern added. “And I’ve been following it for 45 years.”
Do’s office didn’t return calls for comment. But Diep defended the supervisor’s mailers, which promoted a real estate town hall and two health fairs that offered free flu vaccinations, blood pressure testing, and glaucoma screenings, among other services.
“It is disappointing to see our effort to bring basic health care to the community is being politicized,” said Diep, a Republican running against Democratic businessman Josh Lowenthal.
“Instead of focusing on how many people received free dental care, they focused on the marketing aspect of the event.”
Do’s office sent five flyers in 2018. Three featured Diep and displayed the councilman’s name in large font. Two advertised events on Oct. 14 and April 28, both of which came within weeks of elections in which Diep was running. And while one of Do’s other mailers that promoted a co-hosted event went to only 7,300 addresses, the flyers featuring Diep each went to at least 29,000 homes.
In recent years, Do has been accused of abusing public funds for political gain. Those allegations came after Do spent $277,000 in taxpayer funds to send 1.2 million flyers during the 2016 election cycle, a campaign he eventually won by fewer than 700 votes. California’s Fair Political Practice Commission later determined that Do’s mailers fell mostly within the law as it was written in 2016, before the legislature changed it.
But under a state law inspired by Do’s 2016 mailing spree, all California elected officials are prohibited from sending taxpayer-funded flyers within 60 days prior to any election in which their name appears on the ballot. Because Do isn’t running this year, it’s legal for him to promote events with Diep, even though it would be illegal for Diep to send the same communications through his city office.
The recent allegations against Do mark the second time this year that an Orange County supervisor has been accused of using public funds to campaign for another politician. In February, two board members accused Supervisor Michelle Steel of using taxpayer funds to help District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ re-election bid after her office mailed 16,000 flyers promoting a meet-and-greet at a residence where only a few dozen people could attend. Steel planned additional mailers featuring Diep but canceled them after being criticized for her Rackauckas flyers.
In response to Steel’s communications, Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Shawn Nelson sought to create a ballot measure asking voters to set restrictions on taxpayer-funded mailers, including rules that would prohibit supervisors from listing other elected officials on mailed flyers. Instead, the board passed a diluted plan, proposed by Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, that allows government mailers to promote political co-hosts. Following that vote, supervisors cumulatively sent $241,000 of public mailers prior to an election where four board members were running.
The AD-72 contest between Diep and Lowenthal has been expensive, with $3.7 million spent so far. The spending on Do’s mailer is small in comparison.
But Orange County political watchdog Shirley Grindle suggested government events provide a different — and potentially powerful — avenue for politicians to reach voters. And she expressed frustration at the overall volume of publicly-financed communications issued by Orange County supervisors.
“It’s an obvious and gross misuse of county funds,” Grindle said. “I don’t understand why these people can’t do the right thing.”
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