San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding has been exploiting a loophole in the county's campaign finance law that the district attorney has ruled legal but the county's registrar of voters wants changed.
The technique used by Golding's campaign committee allows her to accept political contributions that appear to be in excess of the county's $250 limit per individual for each campaign.
Golding's method has been to collect contributions of $500 and apply them retroactively to repay more than $275,000 she lent her successful 1984 primary and general election campaigns. In other cases, Golding has split the $500 donations between past campaigns and future races without identifying publicly the portions that are going for each.
The county's campaign finance ordinance states that individuals may give a maximum of $250 to each campaign. Politicians often collect $250 before or during their primary races and, if successful, another $250 for general election campaigns.
But by collecting $500 in single blocks and applying it to her past and future campaigns, Golding has taken fund-raising for county races a step further and opened up some interesting possibilities.
For example, it is possible that as 1988 approaches, Golding could begin collecting individual donations of $1,000 from people who have not yet contributed to her campaigns. She could then apply $500 of that money to her 1988 primary and general election campaigns and another $500 to any remaining deficits on her two 1984 campaigns.
Because the law places no limits on the number of donations one person can make and have applied either forward or backward--as long as there are deficits for past campaigns--the possibilities are almost endless. Candidates who have trouble raising money but can lend their campaigns large amounts of their own money might then pay themselves back by, in effect, collecting double when reelection time comes around.
Dist. Atty Edwin Miller has ruled informally that Golding's technique falls within the law. But Registrar of Voters Ray Ortiz thinks the law ought to be changed.
In a letter to City Councilman William Jones, who heads a task force examining the city's campaign finance laws, which are almost identical to the county's ordinance, Ortiz suggested that all loans be made for a specific election and be repaid by the end of the reporting period for that particular election, usually no more than two months after Election Day.
Such a change could eliminate the confusion that arises when a politician collects $500 or $1,000 contributions--two or four times the legal limit.
Ortiz has sent Golding's campaign two letters since Sept. 4 complaining about "discrepancies" in her campaign statements going back to the summer of 1984.
Specifically, Ortiz objects to the statement the campaign committee is using to explain contributions that appear to exceed the legal limit: "The cumulative amounts that are over $250 are caused by fund-raising for more than one election."
For example, James Youngblood, a San Dieguito developer, has contributed $375 to Golding's campaign committee in 1985. But because of the way that money is reported, it is impossible to know for which campaign Youngblood's contribution has been used. If the money has been allocated to pay off 1984 campaign debts, then Youngblood is free to contribute another $250 for Golding's 1988 primary campaign. But if Youngblood's money has been saved for 1988, then he can contribute no more funds to that race.
"Who's to say if six years from now you're giving money to an election held six years before?" asked Keith Boyer, Ortiz's top assistant. "The farther the contribution is made from the time of the election the less logical it seems."
Robert Miller, treasurer of Citizens for Golding, acknowledged that the campaign committee's reporting techniques can be confusing. But he pointed out that the procedure is within the limits of county law.
"We're only taking $250 for each election," Miller said. "Whether it's two years down the way or whatever, it is spent for that election. Susan loaned her campaign money for the general and for paying off campaign bills, and now we're reimbursing her. The money was spent and it is due her.
"We're filing what we're required to file. We're within the law."
Miller said all of Golding's campaign money is kept in one bank account. But he said his office keeps track of which funds are going to repay past campaign debts and which are being saved for future campaigns. He said no money has been earmarked for a campaign beyond the primary election of 1988.
Golding dismissed the dispute as an argument over technicalities.
"It's a question of how you report it," Golding said. "What other people may have done is take two separate checks. But the result is exactly the same. The money raised and where it's applied would not change."