County, state received’t act on Ravitch’s marketing campaign finance grievance towards Gallaher

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Both the California Attorney General’s Office and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chose not to act on a complaint about local developer Bill Gallaher’s spending on a campaign to recall District Attorney Jill Ravitch.

Ravitch had raised concerns earlier in the year over Gallaher’s contributions to the recall effort, which now total nearly $800,000, covering paid signature gathering and other campaign expenses, according to the latest public filings.

Ravitch, who in February sought intervention from the Attorney General’s Office, said Gallaher’s spending violates a two-decade-old county ordinance capping individual contributions to a recall campaign at $3,350.

But both the state’s top prosecutor and the Board of Supervisors have now declined to get involved, raising the likelihood that Gallaher will be free to contribute without limit to the recall.

“The purpose of the ordinance was to prevent what is happening here,” Ravitch said in a Friday email reacting to the news. “If it is unenforceable then it needs to be re-written so that something like this can not happen again. We can’t allow a wealthy individual to exert undue influence on the electoral process.”

Ravitch’s office investigated and prosecuted Gallaher’s firm Oakmont Senior Living and two of its affiliates over its abandonment of seniors in two Santa Rosa care homes during the 2017 Tubbs fire. She and her supporters say the recall is a case of a wealthy developer seeking vengeance after being held accountable for his companies’ failures.

Attempts to reach Gallaher through a business partner, a strategist with the recall campaign and a Sacramento lawyer who previously spoke on his behalf about the campaign finance question were all unsuccessful on Friday.

Brian Hildreth, the Sacramento attorney, previously called the county ordinance unconstitutional and said it would fail a court challenge.

“No statute imposing contribution limits on recall committees has been upheld by any appellate court in any state in the last 20 years,” Hildreth told The Press Democrat in March.

Campaign finance reports through April 23 show Gallaher as the lone donor to the effort, which garnered enough verified signatures to qualify for the ballot, county officials announced Wednesday.

The district attorney is normally the law enforcement authority charged with investigating a county campaign finance violation. In this case, however, given she is the target of the recall campaign, Ravitch said she had asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate.

It has declined to do so, Sonoma County Counsel Robert Pittman, confirmed Thursday.

“The Attorney General’s Office declined to take the matter because they concluded they lack authority to step in and enforce local civil ordinances,” Pittman wrote. Attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office also raised doubts about the ability for enforcement of the county’s ordinance “based on recent case decisions,” where the donor, in this case Gallaher, was giving money not to support a specific candidate but to advocate for recalling an incumbent, Pittman said.

Gallaher’s spending “clearly violates Sonoma’s local campaign contribution limits,“ Pittman told The Press Democrat in March.

But because the ordinance specifies that enforcement should be undertaken by the District Attorney’s Office, Pittman’s office was unable to investigate, he said in a Friday interview.

In a statement sent Friday night, the Attorney General’s Office said they had consulted with Pittman before closing the case on their end.

“The Sonoma County Counsel identified potential issues with respect to application of the ordinance to recall elections, and indicated that in light of these issues, further action by our office on this matter was not required,” an office spokesperson wrote.

Given such doubts, the Board of Supervisors chose not to spend taxpayer money on outside legal counsel to challenge Gallaher’s donations, Pittman said. The board made the decision in a March 19 closed-session meeting, he said.

The board may consider changes to the existing campaign finance ordinance, “to allow County Counsel to step in when the District Attorney is disqualified and other cleanup revisions that would allow our ordinance to be more effectively administered,” Pittman said.

The county ordinance predates by a decade the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, in which a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions are a form of free speech, allowing corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited money on elections.

Courts today are more likely to consider contributions to a recall campaign in the same light, distinguishing it from regulations that cap contributions to a specific candidate, Pittman said.