Every four years, seats on the local Democratic and Republican central committees come up for election. And though party insiders covet the positions, they usually are won through connections, not money.
Consider that in 2012 — the last year elections were held — there were nearly 150 candidates from the two parties running for seats. Yet the vast majority had less than $1,000 in their campaign accounts, with many having nothing at all.
One notable exception was county Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
He had $145,000 in his account, most of it from a one-time transfer from his state Assembly campaign funds in 2008. And ever since, he’s pumped tens of thousands more into the fund and spent a total of $337,000.
A Voice of OC analysis of seven years of publicly available reports shows Spitzer has been able to use the account to finance an affluent political lifestyle and build a crucial network of important connections for what will almost certainly be a run against District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – or one of his allies – in 2018.
Spitzer is candid about the importance of his unusual financial account, which does not appear to violate campaign finance laws.
“I run Todd Spitzer, the elected official, like a business,” said the lawyer and former assistant district attorney. “This is a 365-day-a-year business for me. My entire life, my social life, is surrounded by politicians.” And “it takes money to maintain those relationships,” he said.
And though it may seem unique now, Spitzer predicts similar levels of spending from these types of accounts will be commonplace as term limits force more state legislators back into local seats.
He has used his money to make donations to fellow Republicans, support charities, bolster the party coffers, and pay thousands of dollars in other expenses — like office supplies, hotel bills, and bar tabs. Here’s a sampling based on the Voice of OC review:
- At least 200 payments totaling about $17,000 for restaurant, food, and beverage expenses. They range from dozens of bills at Peets Coffee & Tea to a $1,200 fundraiser for judicial candidate Mike Murray this year at the upscale Nieuport 17 restaurant.
- A total of $1,200 at cigar shops for meetings and fundraisers, including four bills of at least $200 each.
- A $173 bill at the Hyatt hotel in Sacramento for a statewide Republican Party convention.
- A $831 bill at Zov’s Bistro, one of the county’s most high-profile political hang outs.
- More than $800 in wedding gifts for friends and coworkers.
(Click here for a database of Spitzer’s central committee account.)
“If you look at my expense reports, you’d think two things,” he said. “The guy should be fat and have lung cancer.”
But the food, tobacco and alcohol are political fuel. Part of the cigar costs, for example, he said, he donated to the Orange County Young Republicans, who have a social day each year when they go shooting in the morning and then smoke cigars and drink alcohol in the afternoon.
The $831 at Zov’s was to cover the costs of a meeting he hosted of representatives of the Association of California Cities – Orange County to discuss “what the county will look like” in the future, he said. “It was all business.”
One purchase he may wish he didn’t make was a $402 gift to Susan Kang Schroeder in 2010 when Rackauckas appointed her as his chief of staff. A few months later Rackauckas fired Spitzer from his high-ranking post and started one of the ugliest political fights in recent county history.
Political rivals challenged Spitzer’s use of his Central Committee account, and a complaint was filed in 2012 against him with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
“We received a complaint but upon review [the] Enforcement Division decided not to open the case,” wrote FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga in an email.
Orange County’s local campaign finance law, Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics or TINCUP, prohibits using money from supervisor or other county campaign accounts to make donations to other candidates.
But Spitzer’s Central Committee account isn’t affected by TINCUP because the local ordinance doesn’t cover central committee races.
Furthermore, Spitzer has raised some money in recent years for both his supervisor and central committee accounts from the same donors, but there is also no conflict because the central committee isn’t covered by local contribution limits.
Nonetheless, a good government expert said Spitzer’s central committee account shows how “flexible” the laws governing campaign finance are.
The definitions of what expenses are permitted from such office holder accounts, like wedding gifts, over the years have become “pretty elastic,” said ethics expert Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies in Dallas.
But, he said, “there’s still a point at which you can’t pay for personal purposes,” like sending family members on vacation to Bermuda or buying hugely expensive gifts or personal dinners.
The Voice of OC review showed some cases where the filings don’t describe how some expenditures are connected to allowed uses like political activity. The law, however, doesn’t require such details.
Spitzer insists the fund makes him more trustworthy than the typical elected official.
“The difference between me and a lot of electeds is I actually pay for things — I don’t take,” Spitzer said. “That’s how you get in trouble, when you take. I give and I report [on required state campaign forms.] I give and I report.”
Since 2011, the county Republican party has received $19,000 from Spitzer’s account, and candidates who have benefitted from his donations include: Congressman Ed Royce; former House Speaker John Boehner; state Sen. Pat Bates; and assemblymen Matt Harper and Allan Mansoor.
He also donated to Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau, when Bilodeau ran for re-election to the board of the Orange County Water District in 2012.
State law also permits accounts, like Spitzer’s Central Committee fund, to make charitable donations. He has made several, including $25,000 last year to the Orange County Parks Foundation to create a Orange County Crime Victims’ Monument. Others over the years include $1,500 to United Way and $500 to the American Cancer Society.
How Spitzer’s Account Came to Be
Spitzer has been active in Orange County politics for more than 20 years, first serving as a school board member in the early 1990s. Then, in the late 1990s, he won his first seat on the Board of Supervisors, and in 2002 ascended to the state Assembly.
When term limits required him to leave the Assembly at the end of 2008, he had built up a war chest of more than $1.3 million that he could use for a future run for district attorney.
But TINCUP put lower limits in Orange County on how much money local candidates can receive from an individual donor for offices, like DA or county supervisor, than apply to state offices.
Since many of Spitzer’s contributors had donated above the local limit, he either had to give up the excess campaign cash or find another legal way to use it.
So, in November, 2008 he transferred $1.1 million to his DA campaign and put the remaining $235,000 in his newly-formed Central Committee account.
Spitzer said in an interview it was Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Republican newsletter FlashReport, who suggested he create the Central Committee account and, once it was formed, former county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh sought donations to help the party and its candidates.
Since its creation, Spitzer’s Central Committee account has received a total of about $345,000 and paid out more than $330,000, leaving it with about $15,000 at the end of June, this year, according to the Voice of OC review.
“I keep meticulous records,” said Spitzer. “Every single receipt has the name of the person who was there” at an event or meeting where he picked up the bill.
Although by far most of Spitzer’s money over the years came from his Assembly account, he has raised money from local donors, including some who also contribute to the account attached to his Board of Supervisors seat.
For example, last year the prison telephone firm Global Tel*Link Corporation donated $1,800 to Spitzer’s Central Committee fund and $1,900 to his supervisor campaign fund.
Christopher Townsend, a lobbyist who represents the company, also donated $1,900 to Spitzer’s Central Committee account last year.
Townsend said in a telephone interview he’s known and liked Spitzer for more than 20 years, adding he gladly gave and asked his client to give.
“He asked,” Townsend said. “Politicians all the time ask for help.”
As for critics who contend there is something legally wrong with Spitzer’s use of his central committee account, Spitzer spells out what he said happened in 2012.
He said his opponent, former GOP Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s office about Spitzer’s two accounts. The DA’s office investigated, even though it had benefitted from the central committee account.
Spitzer had used funds from it to help underwrite costs for the DA office team’s participation in an annual race from Baker to Las Vegas. The DA’s office ultimately found nothing to prosecute.
Rackauckas’ staff sent their report to the state Attorney General’s office, which also found no violations and referred it to the FPPC, which similarly determined there was no case to prosecute.
“We answered all of the FPPC’s questions and they closed the case,” said Spitzer. “There was nothing there.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.