Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel used county taxpayer funds to mail postcards featuring her name and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to 16,000 voters, inviting them to a morning coffee Steel’s staff knew only could handle 50 people, according to emails, text messages and video clips reviewed by Voice of OC.
“The venue of the coffee cannot really hold more than 50 people,” Steel consultant Tyler Diep wrote in a Jan. 12 email to a county official. Diep also is a Westminster city councilman and a candidate this year for the state Assembly.
About $5,800 in county taxpayer funds were used to print and mail the color postcards, which were sent to 16,000 voters based on age and geographic location, according to the emails.
“The disparity between the number of people who were invited and the number of people who could actually attend does make it look like it’s more about blanketing people with an electoral mailer than actually meeting people,” said Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School and the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
At the same time, she said the spending doesn’t appear to cross the line into illegality.
“I think they would make the argument that this is small because they want an intimate setting to really have an in-depth discourse with constituents, and if the setting’s too big then you miss out on that opportunity,” Levinson said.
“On the other hand you can say, look, this is about an election because you’re inviting 16,000 [people] to a house party. And that’s like inviting a university to an apartment building. I mean it’s just nuts in terms of numbers.”
Asked for comment about concerns the mailers used taxpayer money for re-election purposes, a DA spokeswoman referred comment to Steel’s office.
“Tony [Rackauckas] was asked to attend this event by Supervisor Steel and it is our understanding the mailer and the event details were discussed with county [counsel], so we are referring any questions you may have to the Supervisor’s office,” said the spokeswoman, Michelle Van Der Linden.
Steel didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment Monday through a call to her a cell phone, a text message, and a message with an assistant at her county office.
Steel is asking her Board of Supervisors colleagues Tuesday for funding approval for four more similar events.
Another ethics expert, Tracy Westen, a lawyer formerly with the Center for Governmental Studies, said “if a candidate uses taxpayer money to invite people generally to a forum in which he or she talks, or there’s an opportunity for questions, there may well be an electioneering benefit. But probably the benefit of information for constituents outweighs any downsides.”
Bob Stern, a former chief lawyer for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said the mailers are “not ideal,” but appears to be allowed within the law when it happens this far in advance of an election.
The postcard invitations went to voters in Steel’s largely coastal 2nd District “based on age and geography,” according to emails reviewed by Voice of OC. The postcards describe the event as a “community coffee” and ask people to RSVP because of “limited space.”
During the roughly hour-long coffee, Steel spoke for about two minutes, according to a video clip reviewed by Voice of OC.
“This is really just, opening up, you know, who we are. You can just meet person-to-person,” Steel said. “We are just normal human beings. We want to work with you, and, you know, just want to meet everybody…that’s why we are here.”
Rackauckas spoke for about 16 minutes, according to the video, providing a “quick overview” of what the DA’s office does and answering questions from attendees. Both he and Steel mingled with the largely older, white group of attendees.
Both Steel and Rackauckas are up for re-election this year. Steel previously won by comfortable margins and has over $500,000 in her campaign account.
Rackauckas is being challenged by Supervisor Todd Spitzer and has faced numerous criticisms in recent years, most prominently when his office was removed from prosecuting mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai due to the “jailhouse snitch scandal.” At least six convictions for serious crimes, including murder, have been overturned or sentences reduced by the courts due to the scandal.
The “community coffee” with Rackauckas and Steel advertised in the mailers was held on Saturday, Jan. 27 at the home of Lee Ramos, a candidate for Costa Mesa City Council.
Steel is planing at least four more of the events in coming weeks in Rossmoor, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach.
Her county budget request does not list a cost for the events, but the bill for the one last month was $250 for food—$5 per person according to the emails—and $5,787.97 to print and mail the color postcards. It’s not clear who designed the cards, though the list of 16,000 recipients was provided to the mail company by Steel’s office, according to the records reviewed by Voice of OC.
Voice of OC has filed a Public Records Act request for the list of 16,000 recipients.
According to the emails, the county counsel’s office said requirements for county-paid mailers prohibited targeting “high propensity voters,” a term for people who vote often.
In his email, Diep said, “due to budgetary concern it is not practical to mail this postcard to EVERY voter in the 2nd District. We intend to mail this invitation to a more selective group of voters based on age and geography. We will not target voters base on partisan registration. We will not target voters based on their likelihood of voting.”
Video of the gathering showed most of those present appeared to be older and white, a demographic that traditionally favors Republicans in Orange County.
A state law was enacted last year largely in reaction to Supervisor Andrew Do having the county spend at least $246,000 in taxpayer money on mailers featuring his name in the run-up to his tight 2016 re-election.
The spending ramped up just before the June 2016 primary election, then dropped off to nothing for three months, before ramping up again before the November general election. Do stopped sending taxpayer-funded mailers after he won re-election.
The new state law bans county government-funded mailers featuring elected officials 60 days before elections. It was approved unanimously by both houses of the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
This year, the black-out periods are April 6 until the June 5 primary, and Sept. 7 until the Nov. 6 general election.
To get the community coffee postcard mailed, Diep had county staff work over a weekend to quickly approve, within four days, the Garden Grove-based printing company dtn.tech as a county vendor, rather than using a previously authorized vendor.
According to emails, Beth Holder, manager of the county’s community events, told Diep at 10:20 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 5, that dtn couldn’t do the mailing because it wasn’t registered as a county vendor.
“This will require the documents listed and take some time,” Holder wrote. “...As this mailer needs to go out, I suggest we move forward with our contracted vendor and begin the process of registering the outside vendor for future projects.”
But 11 minutes later, Diep sent her an email asking for all of the forms that needed to be signed, and added, “maybe there was a breakdown of communication somewhere between us but all the paperwork could have been resolved last month or even earlier.”
On Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 6 and 7), other staff sent Holder emails saying they had received the dtn paperwork.
“... All set. DTNTech may begin work...,” county parks department purchasing staffer Diana Lin wrote to Holder that Sunday. Holder notified Diep on Monday morning “that their vendor could begin the work on this job.”
Toward the end of the Steel-Rackauckas coffee, a man who identifies himself as a California State University, Fullerton, student recorded video as he asked Rackauckas how he could get involved in campaigns.
Rackauckas advised him to contact the various campaigns, according to the video. The man asked how he could get involved in Rackauckas’ campaign.
Rackauckas reached into his pocket and appeared to hand over a card. “That number is [directly] to my office, so uh – so call – you’ll talk to my assistant, Vickie. And, uh, let her know. And she won’t be able to do anything, but she’ll make sure that…that we get that and we get it…to the right people.”
The young man asked how to find out more about Rackauckas’s campaign platform and Rackauckas told him the address for his campaign website, https://ocdistrictattorney.com/
Tracy Wood is Voice of OC's civic editor. You can contact her at email@example.com.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.