State election officials launched an investigation Thursday into the Mountain View Fire Fighters Political Action Committee (PAC) following a complaint that the organization has been on a spending spree supporting City Council candidates in violation of campaign finance laws. Records show the state's powerful landlord lobby is helping fund the firefighters' campaign spending.
The firefighters PAC has sent mailers and flyers to residents in support of three candidates -- Margaret Abe-Koga, Lisa Matichak and Jose Gutierrez -- throughout October, one of which touts that all three support Measure C and "full funding" for public safety. But the campaign committee has not reported these mailers as large independent expenditures, nor do the mailers themselves disclose that they are being paid for by an independent committee.
The latest campaign filings also reveal that the firefighters PAC has taken money from the California Apartment Association (CAA), a landlord lobbying group, though the exact nature of the contribution is unclear. The assistance from CAA is unusual for the local PAC, which has historically been funded through Mountain View firefighters and supported candidates for state office. It's also the latest in a string of aggressive independent expenditures in Mountain View this election season, with the bulk of outside money being spent on misleading attack ads against candidate and former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber.
Residents have been receiving mailers from the firefighters PAC for weeks under dubious circumstances. In a sworn complaint to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), Mountain View resident Janet Werkman said that the mass mailers likely cost thousands of dollars, exceeding the threshold requiring immediate disclosure reports for large independent expenditures. Yet even as the mailers were spread throughout the city, the firefighters PAC hadn't filed any reports since 2018.
Recent filings by the PAC revealed that the committee had, in fact, spent $24,436 in support of Abe-Koga, Matichak and Gutierrez between Sept. 27 and Oct. 23, but the spending was listed as "contributions" made out to all three candidates as a single entity -- despite no such committee existing. In most instances, Abe-Koga, Matichak and Gutierrez are listed as recipients residing in Brentwood, California, when all three live in Mountain View.
Adding to the strange nature of the filings, the firefighter PAC disclosed that it received $5,000 from the California Apartment Association's PAC, but lists it as a "miscellaneous increase" in cash rather than a contribution. The California Apartment Association, on the other hand, listed the $5,000 as a direct monetary contribution on Sept. 22, just days before the firefighters PAC began spending money.
The firefighter PAC's treasurer and main point of contact, Capt. Melton Wong of the Mountain View Fire Department, did not respond to requests for comment.
Joshua Howard, executive vice president of local government affairs for the California Apartment Association, said in a statement that the organization makes political contributions just like any other organization, with a goal of supporting candidates that work to create a favorite climate for its members' interests.
"We do not comment on specific donations our PAC authorizes but it is our goal to support the election of candidates who understand the importance of the rental housing industry and will champion a strong economy," Howard said.
Matichak for years has said that she is OK with independent expenditures so long as they are positive and the organizations behind the political ads are easily identifiable. Abe-Koga did not respond to requests for comment on the firefighter PAC's activities. Candidate and former Councilman Lenny Siegel disputes the claims in the ads -- all of the candidates support public safety -- and accused the apartment association of meddling in the election.
"They have been laundering money for the corporate landlords, whose interest is in undermining rent control and other renter protections," Siegel said.
While the FPPC has launched an investigation into the firefighter PAC's activities, it has not made any determination of wrongdoing, said Galena West, the agency's chief of the enforcement division, in an email Thursday. Opening the investigation does not confirm the validity of the allegations, she said.
Outside of independent expenditures, filings from the California Apartment Association show the organization directly contributed $1,000 to candidate Paul Roales' campaign. Roales said he rejected the association's support, however, and has since returned the check.
Howard disputes the assertion, and said Roales met with PAC officials and agreed to accept campaign contributions and an endorsement from the landlord group. A questionnaire filled out by Roales and provided to the Voice by Howard details that Roales checked boxes agreeing accept money and an endorsement from the association's PAC.
In response, Roales said he had met with a wide range of potential supporters during his campaign including trade unions, landlords and developers -- something he said was important in his effort to to build "as broad of support" for his platform as possible. Roales said he ultimately decided to reject the contribution from the apartment association, however, because of the appearance that it would affect his policy views. He said he mailed back the check on Monday.
Big spending on attack ads
The Silicon Valley Organization, a coalition of Bay Area business leaders and chambers of commerce, has spent a grand total of $44,455 in opposition to Lieber's run for the City Council as of Oct. 21, running ads alleging that she has accepted money from private prisons, payday lenders and companies benefiting from ICE detention facilities.
In one ad, the organization abandons subtlety and outright fixes a picture of Lieber's face next to a picture of President Donald Trump, creating a Venn diagram that implies the two have a connection through anti-progressive special interest groups.
The Silicon Valley Organization's PAC has run the attack ads with the help of money from the California Apartment Association and the California Association of Realtors, which each poured $50,000 in the PAC in recent months.
Paradoxically, Lieber has gained a reputation as a progressive Democrat for years, with a legislative track record in support of immigrants, refugee rights and the rights of inmates. Lieber said she has supported "decarceration" and reduction of "overkill" sentencing. Over the years, she said she has lost endorsements from public safety organizations for her position on criminal justice reform and opposition to Immigrants and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
As for the allegations themselves, Lieber said she couldn't say for sure that she never received money from these groups. As the speaker pro tem of the state Assembly, she said PACs would give her -- and practically every Sacramento lawmaker -- small unsolicited amounts of money. She said she never attempted to solicit money from private prisons and the like, and acted contrary to their interests.
Lieber said the tactics being used by the Silicon Valley Organization are deceptive, and that the true reason she is being targeted is because of her support of rent control and renter protections. She said she wished the apartment association could just be honest during the election season and say outright that they oppose Lieber because of her positions, rather than paint her as an anti-progressive.
"I think they should be upfront with their true motivations," Lieber said. "They should stop trying to use fig leaves and just say what their real intentions are."
Low fundraising, high spending for candidates
Outside of the relatively bloated independent expenditures, council candidates have shifted gears this month by mostly abandoning fundraising efforts and spending big on mailers, flyers and newspaper ads.
The latest round of campaign finance reports, detailing activity from Sept. 20 to Oct. 17, shows that Lieber raised the most money with $6,120, adding up to a cumulative $20,488 in the council race. Her biggest contributors include $600 from the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU), $500 from the Democratic Activists for Women Now and $500 each from Mountain View resident William Boyle and Los Angeles resident Stanley Kandel.
Other notable contributors are state Assemblyman Evan Low ($250) and Mountain View Whisman School District board member Devon Conley ($250). Lieber spent $10,374 over the same period, mostly on printing costs and campaign consulting.
Candidate and former Councilwoman Pat Showalter led the pack in spending during the filing period, reporting she spent $17,798 over the period, mostly on printing costs. She also ramped up her war chest with $3,120 in additional contributions, including $600 from SEIU and $500 from Democratic Activists for Women Now.
Also spending big in the lead-up to the election is Matichak, who raised the most money early in the election season. She only raised $385 between Sept. 20 and Oct. 17, but spent $17,091 on mailers, signs and website ads.
Abe-Koga retained her lead as the top campaign fundraiser this election season, raising $2,556 over the filing period for a grand total of $30,272. Contributions include $2,000 from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee -- financed by the California Association of Realtors -- and $500 from Democratic Activists for Women Now. She received $250 each from Mountain View residents Peter Wang and Hank Dempsey, and $200 from resident Nancy Gee. She also reported receiving a "nonmonetary" contribution from the Mountain View Fire Fighters PAC amounting to $576.
Abe-Koga spent $13,148 during the same period, almost entirely on printing costs.
Siegel raised $1,495 between Sept. 20 and Oct. 17, fueled by larger donations from Mountain View residents Steve Schramm ($350), Carol Rhoads ($300) and Mark Sandler ($300). He spent $14,173 mostly on door hangers, postcards and mailers.
Candidate Alex Nunez raised $2,259 over the same period, receiving $500 from Santa Clara Valley Water District board member Gary Kremen and $350 from Josh Becker, a candidate for state Senate District 13 who made a contribution through his own campaign committee. Nunez spent just over $13,000, primarily on campaign flyers.
John Lashlee, who trailed on campaign fundraising earlier in the year, added another $3,716 to his war chest for a total of $15,958. He received $676 from Cupertino resident Julius Cheng and $500 each from Mountain View residents William Boyle and Scott Haiden. He also received a second donation from Alex Brown, who has given $811 in total to Lashlee's campaign. Lashlee has spent $8,639 over the same period, mostly to pay the salaries of campaign workers and printing costs.
Paul Roales added only $291 in contributions to his campaign, bringing him to $14,706. Though a heavy spender early in the campaign -- much of it on masks -- he had only spent $1,692 during the filing period, mostly on compensation for campaign work and professional services.
All nine candidates agreed to abide by this year's voluntary campaign spending limit of $27,094.