Berkeley Democratic Club under investigation for alleged illegal activities

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The Berkeley Democratic Club, the largest supporting group of the Democratic Party in the city, is facing allegations that the club violated state and local campaign laws.

The Fair Campaign Practices Commission, a city organization that investigates the activities of campaign groups, met Thursday to discuss a complaint it received in July. The complaint accused the Berkeley Democratic Club — a city group not affiliated with UC Berkeley — of failing to file expense reports and of being involved in alleged improper conduct of the Yes on S campaign during the 2012 elections.

The complaint was filed by Patricia Wall, director of Berkeley’s Homeless Action Center, and Bob Offer-Westort, coordinator for the campaign against Measure S, last year’s controversial sit-lie ordinance. Offer-Westort said he and Wall visited voting stations on Election Day and witnessed homeless people, who he said were hired and paid under the counter by Yes on S, handing out false campaign literature. The complaint charges that financial transactions between the BDC and the Yes on S campaign regarding these activities were not reported.

Before the FCPC can begin its investigation, it must first conclude whether it has jurisdiction over the organization or whether it should refer the case to the state. If 70 percent of the group’s expenditures are in the city of Berkeley, the BDC will be considered a local organization, and the FCPC will take on the case. The FCPC still will investigate the Yes on S campaign for allegedly illegally hiring homeless people to distribute misleading campaign materials.

“We did not have present the persons who were supposedly paying people money to distribute the fliers,” said Patrick O’Donnell, chair of the FCPC. “We don’t know their relationship. Were they part of the Yes on S campaign or BDC? We need to investigate more information here.”

Offer-Westort said that the campaign materials were labeled as official Democratic Party voter guides but that the contents were not actual endorsements of the Democratic Party.

“I think that the nature of elections is competitive … but that doesn’t require that we use people, that we mislead people, that we make people that are already on the margins feel that they are being abused,” Offer-Westort said. “I think Berkeley deserves better politics than that.”

The BDC denies it was involved with hiring homeless people to hand out misleading campaign materials on Election Day.

“They can investigate all they want, but they won’t find anything, because there’s nothing to find,” said Roland Peterson, a BDC board member who was at Thursday’s meeting. “The allegations are wild and groundless and misdirected.”

The next FCPC meeting will be held Nov. 21. The commission will review the information gathered and decide how to move forward. It is not clear how the FCPC will proceed if allegations against the BDC are found to be true.

Tara Hurley covers city news. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article could have been interpreted as referring to the Cal Berkeley Democrats, a student group at UC Berkeley. In fact, it refers to the Berkeley Democratic Club, a different organization from the city of Berkeley.