A landlord advocacy group effectively hid from voters big expenditures in Mountain View's November City Council election, new records reveal.
According to disclosures filed with the state last week, the California Apartment Association -- which represents landlords and is involved in local politics funneled $90,000 through the "Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition," a mysterious political action committee (PAC) that sent out an unusual number of mailers in support of three candidates opposed to rent control during the election: Pat Showalter, Ken Rosenberg and Ellen Kamei.
Most of the apartment association's funding of the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition, or NEC, went unreported until Jan. 25, long after voters had filled out their ballots for the Nov. 4 election. Prior reports indicated association contributions of only $5,000.
"Now we know for sure who the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition represented in the election," said council member Lenny Siegel, who was elected along with Showalter and Rosenberg.
"The apartment owners had a right to participate in the election by funding campaign materials. It would have been reasonable for them, in their mailers, to make it clear why they endorsed particular candidates, but they didn't. In fact, they hid their identity. That's unconscionable," Siegel said.
According to reports filed on the day of the election, the NEC spent $29,000 on last-minute mailers in support of Showalter, Rosenberg and Kamei; about half ($15,000) helped fund three mailers for Rosenberg and the remaining $14,000 was split between Showalter and Kamei to send out a pair of mailers for each.
"For a city with 60 percent of the residents being renters, this situation presents an obvious conflict of interest," said Greg Unangst, one of the nine candidates who ran for three open seats on the council.
"One of my greatest surprises and disappointments during the campaign was to find that I was the only candidate that wanted to at least have a discussion of rent control or rent stabilization. None of my fellow candidates wanted to touch it," he said. "After seeing the pattern of campaign contributions, both direct and independent, I better understand why I was alone."
All told, the NEC spent $114,000 on mailers for the three council candidates, having received funds from other sources as well. The committee seemed designed to obfuscate where money came from and to whom it was going. The committee also spent funds backing Orange County state Senate candidate Joe Solorio and local water district candidate Gary Kremen.
The NEC reported receiving funds from numerous sources that appeared to have no interest in Mountain View politics: Indian tribes, unions representing ship builders and iron workers, a DMV software contractor, Steven Humphreys, a Portola Valley resident and CEO of Upstart Mobile, Carlsbad attorney Timothy Dillon and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. PG&E and the CAA were the only funders who seemed to have an interest in influencing the Mountain View council election in some way.
The group claimed on an elaborate website -- now removed from the web -- to be a coalition of community members interested in collaborative decision-making. But not even the council candidates whom they endorsed say they know who those community members are.
"It was quite strange to receive a mailer that had obviously taken photos from my website and Facebook page, from people I had never heard of before," Showalter said in an email. "It was particularly uncomfortable to not be able to find out anything meaningful on their website about who they were. There certainly wasn't any way to reach a live individual to talk about why they had chosen to support me."
"An important part of evaluating any piece of information is knowing its source," Showalter said. "That is what is so insidious about these mailers. You don't know the source."
All three of the Mountain View council candidates said they had no connection to the NEC, and that the NEC used their candidate photos for the mailers by taking them without permission from their campaign websites.
When asked why the CAA chose to fund candidates in such a way, CAA's Joshua Howard said the NEC chose how to spend the money, not the CAA. He said the CAA chose to give money to the NEC with the "understanding that NEC would spend those dollars as it saw fit. This included furthering NEC's goals, such as promoting local candidates who embrace a balanced, collaborative approach to decision-making. That is a goal we share."
The NEC's only contact listed online was its treasurer, a Long Beach attorney specializing in campaign finance named Gary Crummitt. He responded to requests for comment about the secretive nature of the NEC on Wednesday, with a vague message.
"The duties of the treasurer of a committee is to ensure all contributions received and expenditures made are reported correctly," Crummitt wrote in an email. "This was done in the case of the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition. The treasurer is NOT responsible for how the funds are raised or spent. This is the responsibility of the principal officer of the committee. The principal officer and/or consultant are also responsible for the contents of any mailers. The treasurer is responsible for reporting the proper disclaimer on mailers."
Crummitt did not respond to a request for the name of the principal officer. He pointed to a record (FPPC form 410) that was not found online with the NEC's other disclosures on either the city's website or the state's website.
"I have no idea whether or not the outside money that came into the City Council races from a variety of sources had any impact or not," said newly elected council member Rosenberg. "Some of the candidates who benefited from that outside money did not win. I believe that my hard work in Mountain View over many years and my campaign effort are what got me elected."
Kamei, the NEC-backed council candidate who lost, did not respond to requests for comment in time for the Voice's Wednesday press deadline.
"It's disheartening to know that so much money was spent on this election by independent groups," Rosenberg said. "During the campaign, I publicly urged all independent expenditure committees spending money in Mountain View, whether they were supporting me or other candidates, to follow applicable laws, and produce factual, respectful, and positive materials. I am glad that the candidates and independent committees lived up to these ideals. That certainly was not the case in other cities and other races this past year."
Unangst did not condemn the winning candidates.
"We elected three solid, honest people to council who successfully operated in a somewhat perverse electoral system," Unangst said. "I think they will do well for the city. But the prospect for honest candidates being elected in future elections is diminishing."
The NEC mailers "might have played a marginal role in the election, but one of their candidates came in sixth, so they didn't make a big difference," Siegel said in an email, referring to Kamei. "I didn't send out mailers (and no third party included me in mailers) because I expected most voters, overwhelmed by campaign postcards, to simply recycle them."