Complaint accuses rent board slate of violating election laws

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On Tuesday, Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission heard a complaint alleging that Tenants United for Fairness, one of the two slates running for the city’s Rent Stabilization Board, violated city and state election laws.

In the complaint, filed Thursday by city Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, the TUFF slate is accused of using large donations to oppose Berkeley’s Measure U — also known as the Sunshine Ordinance — to release two mailers largely in support of TUFF’s slate of rent board candidates. Dacey alleges that this circumvents the Berkeley Election Reform Act, which restricts individual campaign contributions to $250 and prohibits contributions by businesses or corporations.

Dacey’s complaint focuses on TUFF’s slate-mailer organization, which sends out mass mailings in support of candidates or ballot measures. Since a message opposing Berkeley city ballot Measure U and a message in support of the four TUFF rent board candidates appear on the same two mailers, Dacey alleges that TUFF improperly used funds contributed to the “No on Measure U” campaign to support its candidates.

“The TUFF slate is clearly using the SMO to skirt Berkeley election laws,” the complaint states.

A press release from UC Berkeley students Matt Calvert and Henna Trewn accused the TUFF slate of accepting $32,000 from “large landlords and corporate interests.” When asked about the release’s authorship, Calvert said he and Trewn had written it in collaboration with rent board Commissioner and Progressive Affordable Housing Slate candidate Igor Tregub.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Fair Campaign Practices Commission decided the complaint merited further attention. The commission’s staff is preparing a full investigative report into the complaint, which will be presented at the commission’s next scheduled meeting on Nov. 15. The commission will consider only possible violations of Berkeley city law.

The candidates supported in the mailers who attended the meeting – Kiran Shenoy, Jay James and incumbent rent board Commissioner Nicole Drake – contend that their mailers abided by all relevant city and state laws.

“We’ll do what we need to do to right our wrongs,” Drake said. “We’ll see what the commission finds, but we haven’t done anything illegal.”

James said that Dacey has misinterpreted a state law defining a slate mailer organization as prohibiting the involvement of the candidates.

“The law excludes candidates from the definition of a slate mailer organization but doesn’t exclude candidates from participating,” James said.

In response to Dacey’s complaint, TUFF attorney James Sutton said the candidates assert that payments to a slate-mailer organization are considered “in-kind contributions” or “independent expenditures” rather than direct contributions to the candidates.

Part of the problem in determining whether TUFF has made use of a loophole in city campaign finance law is the relative rarity of slate-mailer organizations in Berkeley.

“This issue has not come up in the last 10 years,” said Kristy van Herick, the commission’s secretary, at the meeting.

Contact Gautham Thomas at gthomas@dailycal.org.

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  • Rob Wrenn

    More than 95% of the money raised by the so-called TUFF slate mailer organization comes from landlords and property managers. You can verify this by looking at their Form 401 Slate Mailer Organization Campaign Statements filed with the City Clerk and hopefully on Citys Web site by now. In their deceptive mailer, headlined “Who’s For Renters”, sent to tenants the TUFF slate call themselves “the tenant slate”, but nothing could be farther from the truth. No rent board slate in recent memory has been so dependent on landlord campaign contributions. The only incumbent on the TUFF slate has the Rent Board’s worst attendance record. This can be verified by visiting the Rent Board’s Web site where attendance records are available.

    The best choice for tenants and anyone else who wants the rent control ordinance to be fairly administered are the Progressive Affordable HOusing Slate made up of Igor Tregub, a recent UC grad, Housing commissioner Alejandro Sot Vigil, Asa Dodsworth and Judy Shelton. The three incumbents on this slate all take their jobs seriously and have good meeting attendance records.

  • Judy Shelton

    The crucial missing piece to this article is what TUFF’s lawyer
    admitted during the FPCP meeting yesterday: That the slate had
    made a “mistake” and would be repaying most of its
    considerable corporate donations. Why did the reporter fail to
    note this? It is difficult to understand the many awards the
    Daily Cal has received in light of its limp — or absent —
    reporting regarding TUFF’s dirty and deceptive actions
    throughout this campaign.