By Roger Straw, October 11, 2022
We learned yesterday that in 2019, the Valero-Benicia-based Political Action Committee (PAC) known locally as “Working Families…” submitted a form to the California Secretary of State reorganizing itself with a new name. It would no longer be a PAC; rather it would operate as a “General Purpose Committee” under different rules and financial reporting requirements.
In 2018 the PAC spent $192,347 to fund dirty campaign literature and nasty push polls to smear City Council candidate Kari Birdseye and to promote candidates Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada. All 59 of its 2018 campaign finance reports identified the group as a “Primarily Formed Candidate/Officeholder Committee” (PAC) and using the incredibly long but perfectly clear name, “Working Families for a Strong Benicia, a Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council 2018.” [emphasis added]
The next year was a non-election year, but still required financial reporting. And on July 31, 2019, the PAC submitted its financial form to the City of Benicia for the first time identifying itself as a General Purpose Committee rather than a Primarily Formed Candidate/Officeholder Committee (PAC), and using a shorter name, “Working Families for a Strong Benicia, a Coalition of Labor and Industrial Services Companies.”
I know this is complicated stuff, but bear with me – it’s important here in 2022.
In 2020, even though the Valero group submitted its two semi-annual reports (January and July) dropping the “supporting” and “opposing” terminology from its name and continuing to identify as a General Purpose Committee, it nonetheless submitted supplemental financial reports beginning in September as a Primarily Formed Candidate/Officeholder Committee (PAC) and used most of its old name, explicitly indicating support for Strawbridge. Under this identity, the PAC again engaged in smear campaigns and big money expenditures of $253,878 for Strawbridge and against candidate Steve Young for Benicia mayor.
Although the Valero group represented itself to the City of Benicia as a General Purpose Committee from July 2019 to July 2020, and submitted its reorganization paper to the California Secretary of State in November of 2019, it was somehow able to switch its operating identity and tactics for the September-November leadup to the 2020 election. And reported properly and timely.
Question: In 2020, did the Valero group again submit an amendment, this time returning to a PAC identity?
Question: Can a Committee operate as a General Purpose Committee and ONLY spend money on electoral campaigns, i.e., function as a PAC only under General Purpose rules and reporting requirements?
Important to note that in all of these financial reports, 2018-2020, regardless whether they checked the “Primarily Formed” (PAC) or the “General Purpose” box, the Valero group used the same I.D. number, 1412992.
2022 – Only now coming to light…
Benicia leaders and candidate campaign advocates have been watching and waiting recently for disclosure of the Valero group’s 2022 financial reports. Given the dirty tactics and open advocacy by the PAC in recent years, there has been good cause for concern.
On September 30, 2022, the City posted on its website campaign finance reports properly submitted on deadline by the candidates for Benicia City Council. It seemed to me that the PAC had missed the deadline, and I wrote to City Clerk Lisa Wolfe asking for information. Wolfe replied that the City had not heard from any PAC as of closing, and would have no more information until Monday October 3 at the earliest.
In another brief email exchange on October 5, Wolfe stated that she had heard nothing from them. On October 6, I wrote to Wolfe again, this time with copies to City Attorney Ben Stock, thanking her, and asking, “Is the PAC not required by ordinance or State law to report? What, if anything, will be done to solicit or require timely reporting?”
Over the next few days, hearing nothing from the City, I corresponded with a few local leaders with more authority than me asking for their help in getting the City to shed light on the delinquent reports. Not until one or more of them were in touch with the City did I hear back in an email from Wolfe:
“Working Families for a strong Benicia amended their committee to be a General Purpose Committee rather than a Primarily Formed Committee to support or oppose a candidate. They only have to report semi-annually, and when their donations/expenditures trigger a required filing.”
The Clerk attached a Form 410 that the Valero group had submitted to the Secretary of State in November, 2019.
So today’s news is that under General Committee reporting rules, unless and until the Valero group turns itself into a PAC again and is required to report donations/expenditures for a candidate of $1,000 or more and thus trigger a required Form 497 24-hr. Contribution Report, we are not likely to get any transparency until their January 31, 2023 Semi-annual Form 460 Report.
Oh, and here’s an interesting question: would a General Purpose Committee be in a good position to make an unreported generous contribution to something reflecting well on a particular candidate, something like a soccer field, and thus escape oversight as a campaign contribution?
Well, we will have to just wait to find out what, if anything, the Valero group is going to do to promote or oppose any of our 2022 candidates for City Council. No one reports having received a mailer as yet. Many residents reported receiving a telephone poll in late August, early September. It was described as a political poll, but with relatively neutral or unbiased language when compared to the 2018 and 2020 “push polls.” (The poll was conducted by a reputable polling company, American Directions Research Group of Lakeland, FL. I have detailed notes if anyone is interested.)
What to expect from here?
A few local leaders have said privately that they believe Valero has, by its shift to a General Purpose Committee and its lack of visible campaign efforts so far, signaled that they will stay out of our 2022 election.
I doubt that.
The Big Oil influence from Texas is real, and I think Texan and local oil and labor execs will come up with a late and financially unreportable barrage of clear support for Strawbridge and Largaespada. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Valero learned via Mayor Steve Young’s big win in 2020 that smear tactics don’t always work. But their methods and tactics are likely still in place, and in power, locally as well as from afar. Stay tuned…