California attorney general, Sonoma County supervisoyers decline to act on campaign finance complaint against Bill Gallaher

Jill Ravitch (PD FILE)

Both the California Attorney General and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors have decided not to respond to a complaint about local developer Bill Gallaher’s spending on a campaign to recall District Attorney Jill Ravitch.

Ravitch had raised concerns earlier this year about Gallaher’s contributions to the recall effort, which according to recent public records amounts to nearly $ 800,000 and covers the cost of signature collection and other campaigns.

Ravitch, who filed for intervention with the attorney general in February, said Gallaher’s spending violated a two-decade-old county ordinance that limits individual contributions to a recall campaign to $ 3,350.

But both the state’s chief prosecutor and board of directors have now refused to get involved, increasing the likelihood that Gallaher will be able to fully contribute to the recall.

“The purpose of the regulation was to prevent what was happening here,” Ravitch said in an email on Friday when he responded to the news. “If it is not enforceable, it has to be rewritten so that something like this cannot happen again. We cannot allow a wealthy individual to improperly influence the electoral process. “

Ravitch’s office investigated and prosecuted Gallaher’s firm Oakmont Senior Living and two of its affiliates for abandoning seniors in two Santa Rosa nursing homes during the 2017 Tubbs fire. She and her supporters say the recall was a case of a wealthy developer seeking revenge seeks after being held accountable for the mistakes of his companies.

Attempts to reach Gallaher through a business partner, a recall campaign strategist, and a Sacramento attorney who had previously spoken on his behalf about campaign funding were unsuccessful on Friday.

Brian Hildreth, the Sacramento attorney, previously called the county ordinance unconstitutional and said it would not stand a judicial challenge.

“In the past 20 years, no appellate court in any state has upheld a law imposing fee restrictions on recall committees,” Hildreth told The Press Democrat in March.

The campaign’s financial reports through April 23 show that Gallaher is the only donor to the effort that has collected enough verified signatures to qualify for the vote, district officials said Wednesday.

The district attorney is usually the law enforcement agency tasked with investigating a breach of district campaign funding. In this case, however, Ravitch said she asked the attorney general’s office to investigate as she was the target of the recall campaign.

It refused to do so, Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman confirmed on Thursday.

“The Attorney General’s Office declined to take the matter on because they concluded they had no authority to interfere with and enforce local civil ordinances,” Pittman wrote. Attorneys-General also expressed doubts about the ability to enforce the county ordinance “based on recent case decisions,” where the donor, in this case Gallaher, gave money not to endorse a particular candidate but to seek the recall of a candidate to appoint incumbent, Pittman said.

Gallaher’s spending “clearly violates Sonoma’s local campaign contribution limits,” Pittman told The Press Democrat in March.

However, since the ordinance stipulates that enforcement should be done by prosecutors, Pittman’s office has been unable to investigate, he said in an interview on Friday.

In a statement sent Friday night, the attorney general said they had consulted with Pittman before closing the case.

“The Sonoma County Counsel identified potential issues related to the application of the Election Recall Ordinance and indicated that given these issues, no further action is required from our office on the matter,” a bureau spokesman wrote.

Given those doubts, the Board of Supervisors chose not to spend tax dollars on outside legal counsel to challenge Gallaher’s donations, Pittman said. The board made the decision in a meeting on March 19, he said.

The board could consider changes to the existing campaign finance ordinance “to allow the county counsel to intervene if the district attorney is disqualified and other cleanups that would allow our ordinance to be administered more effectively,” said Pittman.

The county ordinance predates the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, in which a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign dues are a form of freedom of speech that allows businesses and other outside groups to spend unlimited money on elections.

Courts today tend to look at contributions to a recall campaign in the same light and differentiate them from regulations that limit contributions to a particular candidate, Pittman said.