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“Education Groups” Weigh in on Politics

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 30 -- Headlined “News Update,” a high-gloss “newsletter” critical of several candidates’ stances on local issues is landing in Santa Monica mailboxes just two months before local voters head to the polls.

But campaign finance experts agree the mailer sent out by Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities (SMSP) is not campaign literature -- at least not technically.

From a front page paragraph slamming City Council incumbent Kevin McKeown’s stance on installing cameras at the pier to a “news” story attacking the “failed policies” of the city’s dominant political group, the two-page pamphlets are educating the public on issues – not campaigning for a new council, experts said.

That’s because the “education group” is a non-profit registered as a 501(c)4, allowing it to mention a candidate’s name as long as the group is not “expressly” advocating for, or campaigning against, a candidate.

They also are not required to reveal who is funding the group or even how much they spend, said Steve Levin, a project manager for the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-profit started in 1983 to study and help implement innovative approaches to governments.

“Yes, we’ve seen a growth in such (non-profits) and it’s simply a way to get around elections laws,” Levin said “It’s hard to come to any other conclusions that these ads are, in fact, campaign literature.”

And the practice is growing.

Groups campaigning as 501(c)4s – which state law allow to engage in politics as long as that is not their primary purpose – are catching on in California and the nation, Levin said.

“We haven’t been tracking it yet, but we know it’s picking up,” Levin said.

To curb the practice, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in February passed a law forbidding the use of any candidate’s name shortly before elections.

Closer to home, Santa Monica now hosts two such groups. In addition to SMSP, which widely believed to represent the views of hotels, developers and some residents, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC)-- a group of civic leaders and longtime residents opposed to large-scale growth in Santa Monica -- filed as a 501(c)4 two years ago.

While SMCLC members said the group is not campaigning for or against any candidates in the upcoming City Council race, it recently raised questions about several campaign contributions to incumbent Pam O’Connor. (see story)

For Levin, 501(c)4 non-profits are just the latest vehicle to move money around in politics.

“Campaign money flows like water; when you plug it up somewhere, it just springs up in other places,” Levin said.

One place the money has been surfacing is SMSP, which first launched “issue ads” in the 2004 council race.

In fact, a Lookout News investigation brought the practice to the attention of Levin’s associate, Bob Stern, the former General Counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission for nine years and author of a number of statewide initiatives enacted by California voters, including the Political Reform Act of 1974. (see story)

While Stern said then it was too soon to the impact such education groups may have on California politics, Levin believes such practices now have far-reaching effects.

“It comes down to transparency,” Levin explained.

It also comes down to money.

“Why file one way when you can possibly raise more money if you file another way,” he said.

Rather than file regular campaign statements -- particularly as an election draws near -- 501(c)4s are only required to file two statements a year with the state, according to California law.

Meanwhile, how much money is being amassed by such groups and where it is coming from is anyone’s guess as the heated race for three open City Council seats approaches.

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