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Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do is again facing scrutiny regarding the potential use of taxpayer money for his re-election campaign, as his office spent nearly a quarter of a million in county dollars on a stream of mass mailers featuring his name.
Now it appears that many of the taxpayer-funded mailers were targeted based on detailed voter databases, an approach normally used by political campaigns.
So far in this election year, Do’s office has spent more than $240,000 on 1.2 million mailers, with at least 400,000 of them sent out in the past three months.
Many of the mailers have prominently featured Do’s name, such as one that declares, “Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do is Helping the People of Orange County Find Their Unclaimed Property.” Do’s name is highlighted in large, bold, orange font.
And now, invoice records obtained by Voice of OC indicate that Do’s office has used data provided by a political information company to get 199,000 voter records for the mailers. If this turns out to be the case, experts say the mailers would appear to be political in nature. And both state law and county policy ban the use of public money for political purposes.
The invoices show that Do’s chief of staff at the county, Brian Probolsky – who also works as a consultant for his re-election campaign – used $2,500 in county funds to obtain mailing lists for the county mailers from the Norwalk-based company, Political Data Inc. (PDI)
The firm specializes in preparing voter databases for political campaigns to target mailers and other communications to voters. It also sells a constituent management database for elected officials that is based on voter data.
Voter registration data can be a powerful tool to target a mailer toward specific groups of people, such as the most active voters, known in the industry as “high propensity voters.”
The PDI mailing lists that Probolsky requested were intended for county-funded mass mailings to specific types of people within Do’s district, according to the invoices. The invoices describe the PDI mailing lists with names like “Spanish 40-56,” “Vietnamese,” and “Prop 13 mailer.”
Probolsky appears to have used PDI’s data to get about 199,000 voter records. In addition, all of Do’s 1.2 million county-funded mailers were printed and mailed using the same political mailing companies that are used for Do’s re-election campaign, records show, raising further questions about whether the mailers were targeted at specific voters.
Do and Probolsky declined Voice of OC’s requests for comment about how they chose the recipients for the county-funded mass mailers that featured Do. Instead, they issued a statement about the public benefits of the events that the mailers invited people to.
”We’ve tried to change the culture at the county – to get bureaucrats out of their cubicles and into our community,” Do said in the statement. “I’m proud that our community events have helped working families find jobs, expanded access to health care for patients in need, and educated parents about ways to protect our children from violent predators.”
Paul Mitchell, PDI’s vice president, declined to comment on what data was provided. But he did say that, in general, many of the firm’s clients are elected officials who use PDI’s services to maintain contact with voters, such as sending out flyers for a health fair.
He also noted that state regulations allow voter data to be used for official governmental purposes.
Legal and ethics experts were troubled by the idea of an elected official using voter data to target taxpayer-funded mass mailers that feature himself in an election year.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard something like that,” said Bob Stern, who co-authored California’s political ethics law. “Obviously it’s troubling if they’re using a political consulting firm to pick the voters they’re sending [mailers to]. Then that may be more like a campaign mailer as opposed to a county mailer.”
Fred Woocher, one of the state’s most prominent election law attorneys, agreed.
“If he’s not equally targeting people who are his constituents to these events, then that’s a pretty inappropriate use of county resources, and it tends to support the theory that this is done for political purposes rather than for a legitimate legislative purpose,” Woocher said.
Woocher noted that there are ways to send mailers to constituents without using voter data. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, allows customers to target mailings to households in a specific geographic area, which can be focused on certain ages, incomes, and household sizes.
“There’s a criminal statute, and potential civil liabilities as well, for using public resources for any partisan political activities” or campaign activities, Woocher said.
Good government expert Tracy Westen said the mailers should be to all constituents, regardless of whether they’re voters on not. If the mailers appear to be targeting certain voters, “that would indicate to me that it’s more political,” he said.
All $224,000 in taxpayer funds spent on Do’s mass-mailing effort this year went to political mailing and data companies that also work for his campaign, according to county data reviewed by Voice of OC.
The vast majority of that money went to The Monaco Group, which also handles Do’s re-election mailers. The popular campaign mail firm says it “specializes in Printing and Direct Mail Production services for Political Campaigns, and Fundraising and other politically oriented clients and organizations.”
The Monaco Group employee listed on the county purchase orders is Judy McKnight. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about Do’s county mailers.
“I have no idea about that,” she said, before hanging up on a reporter.
Another $18,000 in county payments for the mailers went to DMH Meyer, Inc., a political direct-mail firm that’s also done work for Do’s re-election campaign.
Darin Henry, who runs the firm, said he didn’t pick any of the mailer recipients. He said he thinks he designed one of Do’s county mailers and someone at the county designed a couple of them.
Shirley Grindle, who has been the county’s political ethics watchdog since the 1970s, filed a complaint Thursday with the state Fair Political Practices, alleging that the mailers violate state law limiting references to elected officials on taxpayer-funded mailers.
In her complaint, Grindle says it’s “offensive” that the mailers “are being sent only to voting constituents in Supervisor Do’s district AND Supervisor Do is running for election on the November 2016 general election.”
“If elected officials are allowed to produce mailers of this type at public expense, particularly in their election years, then it gives that elected official an unfair advantage over any challengers who do not have the benefit of using public funds to promote themselves,” Grindle wrote.
(Click here for a copy of Grindle’s complaint.)
A campaign official for Do’s opponent also called for an investigation.
“If the mail pieces are not engineered to help his political campaign – then why would he use his political consultant and a company called ‘Political Data’ as the vendors?” said Derek Humphrey, a campaign consultant for Michele Martinez.
“It’s clear to anyone paying attention that Andrew Do is using taxpayer dollars to run his re-election campaign. I honestly don’t understand how he thought he could get away with this.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.