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 [email protected].