The new Orange County District Attorney website homepage – rolled out last month in the midst of DA Todd Spitzer’s competitive re-election – is raising eyebrows about whether it crosses the line on using taxpayer resources for political campaigning.
For Spitzer’s first years in office, the main load screen for the DA website focused on news updates about major cases.
That all changed in February, when Spitzer’s office updated the site to instead feature a large photo of himself that takes up half the screen, next to large text that reads “A champion for public safety.”
“It’s an election slogan,” said Tracy Westen, a government ethics expert who formerly headed the Center for Governmental Studies.
“It sounds like he’s using his official site to campaign. I mean, it’s a campaign message.”
There’s a well-established policy under state law that elected officials should not be “using government money to advance their candidacy, when their opponents don’t have that advantage,” Westen said.
While politicians often put their photos on homepages, Spitzer is taking it to another level, said Jon Fleishman, an OC-based conservative activist who previously served as executive director of the California Republican Party.
“It’s not unusual for elected politicians to have their name and their photo on the splash page of a government website. Although Todd’s taking it to the extreme, given how large his photo and name appear on the website,” Fleishman said in an interview.
Spitzer, a Republican endorsed by the county GOP, did not respond to a request for comment on concerns that the new DA website looks like an election promotion for himself.
The DA’s public information officer, Kimberly Edds, said the website was updated to provide more useful information for the public.
“The website was designed to replace an antiquated and outdated OCDA website with a new site that is easy to navigate, provides easy access to information for victims and other participants in the criminal justice system, as well as provide easy access to information to members of the media, including case info, county jail inmate information, and PRAs,” Edds said.
But Westen said the giant photo of Spitzer and campaign slogan are not valuable information.
“It’s not telling you what [he has] done, or what [he hasn’t] done and so forth,” Westen said.
“It looks to me like it’s election-related, and promotional,” he added.
If the website had been like that ever since Spitzer took office in 2019, it might not be quite as “dramatically problematic,” Westen said.
“But the fact it was added during an election campaign makes it even more suspicious.”
It’s a crime in California for state or local government officials “to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”
Violators can be fined $1,000 per day of the violation, plus up to three times the amount of the government resources used.
It’s supposed to be enforced by local district attorneys and the state Attorney General.
“You’d think the people most sensitive to violations of policies or practices are district attorneys, because they are enforcing the law,” Westen said.
“You would think they wouldn’t want themselves to look like they’re skirting the law.”
The AG’s Office usually doesn’t enforce this law, instead leaving it to local DAs to decide who gets prosecuted.
Where appropriate, our office may be involved in prosecuting such cases. That said, those types of enforcement actions are generally more likely to be handled at the local level,” Attorney General Rob Bonta’s press office said in an emailed response to Voice of OC.
Asked if the AG’s Office has ever enforced this law against a county District Attorney, Bonta’s office did not have an answer.
Another agency with enforcement jurisdiction is the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
The commission doesn’t directly regulate the use of government resources, but does enforce campaign disclosure laws.
And if a government agency pays for political campaign promotions without reporting it on campaign finance disclosures, it can run afoul of the laws the FPPC enforces.
“A state or local agency making payments for campaign related communications may become a committee subject to campaign reporting requirements if the payments qualify as contributions or independent expenditures,” the FPPC states on its website.
“The reporting obligation occurs even if the communication was prohibited,” it adds.
“Therefore, failure to comply may subject the agency to two violations – one for the prohibited communication and another for a failure to report it.”
But the FPPC’s enforcement focuses more on mass mailings, rather than websites.
And unless the government-funded communication has specific words like, “vote for,” “support,” or “oppose,” then “it’s usually more allowable,” said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the FPPC.
He said the agency had not received any complaints about the new DA homepage, while the Attorney General’s Office declined to answer, saying they usually don’t confirm or deny complaints.
Spitzer’s use of a large campaign slogan and giant image of himself on the official DA homepage stands in contrast with what the other large-county DAs.
The homepages for the other large DA offices in California either feature a smaller photo of the elected DA, or none at all.
The OCDA website update came as all county websites were redesigned in recent months as part of a shift in website hosts after the county decided their prior host was no longer meeting their needs.
County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said the main county website, which does not include the DA’s site, was updated six months ago.
Edds compared the DA’s website update to two other County of Orange sites that she said “feature pictures of the elected officials.”
But one of the two sites she pointed to – the main County of Orange site – does not feature elected officials’ photos on its main screen.
The other is the county clerk-recorder’s homepage, which was redesigned last summer to feature a photo of incumbent Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen but not a campaign slogan.
The photos for the new DA website “were taken by OCDA staff and the design was done by the consultant,” the San Clemente-based marketing firm KCOMM, Edds said in a written response to Voice of OC’s questions.
Edds wrote she approved the final design, which went live on Feb. 4.
“Todd did not have any input in the design or content of the website at any stage of the process,” Edds said in her written response.
“The wording next to Todd’s photo on the homepage is taken from his standard bio which readers can access fully by clicking the link below,” she added.
Spitzer’s biography on the DA website calls him “A champion for public safety.”
It’s the same language his election campaign has been using to promote Spitzer since at least 2018.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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