A prominent Phoenix attorney, hired by an anonymous Oro Valley citizen, has asked the Oro Valley Town Clerk to examine the campaign finances of an independent political committee and five council candidates claiming they appear to have violated state campaign finance law.
Attorney Lisa Hauser, of the Phoenix firm Gammage and Burnham, is considered an expert on state election law. She handled voting issues for much of the 12 years she worked for the Arizona Attorney General's Office and is currently the counsel for the state Independent Redistricting Commission. She has served as in-house counsel for former Gov. Fife Symington III and as counsel for the Arizona Republican Party. She also represented President-elect George W. Bush in 2000 during the Florida vote-counting debacle.
In an April 26 meeting with Town Clerk Kathi Cuvelier and in a five-page letter dated the same day, Hauser claimed the sole contributors - Bill Adler, Celta Sheppard and Carl "Tony" Kuehn - to the independent expenditure committee OV Candidates 2004 may have exceeded state limits on political contributions and that there is reason to believe the independent committee had operated in concert with the candidate committees of Conny Culver, Helen Dankwerth, Ken "K.C." Carter, Barry Gillaspie and Richie Feinberg.
State law forbids members of independent political committees from "coordinating or directing" their activities with candidate committees.
Cuvelier said she turned the matter over to the town's attorney, Mark Langlitz, who said May 3 that he referred the matter to the offices of the Pima County Attorney and the Arizona Attorney General for review.
Spokespersons for the county attorney and the attorney general declined to comment on the matter.
Adler and the four candidates contacted for this story denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations should be viewed as 11th-hour smear tactics, especially since the person making the claim doesn't want to be identified.
Hauser admitted that the issue of her client's identity and motivations for hiring her could dominate the debate and overwhelm the claims of impropriety. Nevertheless, she said her client felt the issue of whether campaign finance law was being followed was important and needed to be brought to the attention of the town and the public.
Hauser said her client specifically asked her to contact the Northwest EXPLORER and provide the newspaper an "exclusive" interview on the matter.
She said her client wanted to remain anonymous because he or she "feared retaliation." She did not say how her client might be harmed if his or her name was made public.
She did say that her client was not a candidate for Oro Valley council or a principal of another independent expenditure committee.
Adler said his committee has been "scrupulous" in the conduct of its affairs, has not violated state campaign finance laws and has gone to great lengths to remain distant and disconnected from the campaigns of the five candidates his committee has been supporting via newspaper advertising and campaign handbills distributed by volunteers. Many of the advertisements purchased by his committee have appeared in the Northwest EXPLORER.
He said the anonymous complaint about his committee's activities "smacks of politics."
Gillaspie was more succinct, calling it "crap" and Culver decried the issue as "cowardly" and scolded the Northwest EXPLORER for considering publishing a story about the issue.
"I would be deeply concerned that the Northwest EXPLORER would print anything from someone who does not have the courage to come forth and make their accusations and show some sort of substantiation that any of this could be remotely true," Culver said.
"To me, when someone is anonymous, they're embarrassed by their own accusation and they don't want anyone to know they've made it … I'm not sure if it's cowardly or dirty politics but whichever one, I don't have any respect for it."
If the county attorney or attorney general determine any members of OV Candidates 2004, in making its expenditures, acted with "coordination and direction" with any members of the five candidate committees it could strip OV Candidates 2004 of its independent standing under state law.
If that were to happen, much of the more than $10,000 the committee has spent in 2004 would have to be considered political contributions to the five candidate committees rather than independent expenditures.
The state caps the amount an individual can give to one political candidate in a calendar year at $350. Since January, Adler has given OV Candidates 2004 $4,000, Kuehn has given $3,000 and Sheppard $3,257, according to the latest campaign finance reports for the committee filed with the town. All three have also made personal contributions to several of the candidates.
As an example of how the state caps could be affected, Sheppard, acting as a citizen and not as a member of the independent committee, has made a maximum contribution of $350 to Culver, Gillaspie, Carter and Feinberg. If a portion of the more than $3,257 she has contributed to the independent expenditure committee were considered an "in-kind" contribution instead, she would be in violation of the state contribution limits for all four candidates.
Violating campaign finance law is a civil offense with a penalty being a fine of up to three times the amount the contribution limit was exceeded. Findings of campaign finance violations have no bearing on the conduct or outcome of the election.
If OV Candidates 2004 is stripped of its independence, Adler, Sheppard and Kuehn could face penalties for exceeding not just the caps on individual contribution limits, but also on the state cap of $3,360 in aggregate contributions to political committees an individual can make in a calendar year.
If it is determined any of the candidates acted in concert with OV Candidates 2004, it is unclear if any of the five candidates would face any penalties other than perhaps having to give back some or all of the cash contributions made by Adler, Kuehn and Sheppard in order to get those three under the $350 cap.
In her letter to Cuvelier, Hauser said an investigation into whether the independent committee members and the candidate committee members had acted in concert was warranted because, among other things:
€ Adler has a close political relationship with several of the candidates and is frequently seen talking with them at town meetings.
€ There was a meeting held at Celta Sheppard's house April 17 in which the e-mail invitation said "you are invited to attend a grass roots effort to mobilize our community to vote for a new town council." While none of the candidates attended, abundant candidate campaign literature was distributed at the meeting, as well as voter registration lists, phone number lists and scripts for placing phone calls in support of candidates.
€ The advertisements and literature produced by OV Candidates 2004 and the literature of several of the candidates are similar, with similar language; and the photographs of the five candidates have been used in OV Candidates 2004 handbills.
Hauser said the information in her letter "is not itself evidence" and asked Cuvelier to conduct an inquiry.
"We request that you find reasonable cause to believe that persons associated with this committee and various candidates for the Oro Valley Town Council have violated contribution limits. Specifically, there is reasonable cause to believe that the committee lacks the requisite independence from the candidates it supports," Hauser said in her letter.
Adler dismissed Hauser's allegations as mere politics and said any story written about Hauser's complaint would be unfair.
In an interview April 30, Adler emphatically insisted his committee is completely independent of any other committee seeking to affect the outcome of the Oro Valley council election.
"We cannot and must not gain the concurrence or the participation or the consultation of the candidates in what we do and we have scrupulously avoided that," Adler said.
He admitted to speaking with the candidates at public meetings, but said he's been talking to all of the candidates in the election, including those he opposes.
Adler is a fixture at Oro Valley Town Hall, attending most of the Town Council meetings and many of the advisory board meetings. He has served on the town's Development Review Board, the Planning and Zoning Commission and on the Board of Adjustment.
"Yes, I have a relationship with all of them. I have a relationship with a lot of people. I have a relationship with (four-year council candidate and planning and zoning commissioner) Don Cox. I disagree with everything he does … but it is a relationship," Adler said.
He said the meeting at Sheppard's house had nothing to do with OV Candidates 2004.
"That was a get together to explain the referendum issue, it had nothing to do with our (committee). It was a general discussion but it had nothing to do with OV Candidates 2004 or our expenditures. There wasn't anything coordinated about what went on at that meeting with the candidates, they weren't even there," Adler said.
As for the photos of the candidates used in his committee's campaign literature, Adler said the pictures were taken of the candidates at public events and were not done in coordination with any of the candidates.
"There has been no effort on our part to coordinate or consult with the other candidates. I have no knowledge with what they're doing, at all, and they have no knowledge of what we're doing, or what we're planning to do," he said.
However, there appear to be other examples in which the activities of the independent committee and the candidate committees appear linked in some fashion.
€ Last week someone dropped off at homes on several streets in Sun City Vistoso three handbills stapled together, one from OV Candidates 2004, one from Culver and one from the ad hoc Land Conservation Committee promoting the May 18 bond election.
€ According to Culver and Dankwerth, an employee of Celta Sheppard has designed a newspaper advertisement for all five candidates. The same employee has done all or most of the advertising and campaign literature design work for OV Candidates 2004, and for Feinberg.
€ Feinberg said someone from OV Candidates 2004 called him and asked him for a picture of himself and he provided the committee with one.
Feinberg also said he had OV Candidates 2004 fliers and initially indicated to the Northwest EXPLORER he was going to distribute them along with his own handbills.
He later called back to say he only had a few, didn't know how he got them and never intended to distribute them.
He called back a second time to clarify how OV Candidates 2004 got his photo. He said he was told an employee of Sheppard's was doing design work for the five candidates on an in-kind basis, meaning he didn't have to pay the person cash as the work was done as a donation to his campaign. He said he was called and told the designer needed a photo of him for his own brochure and drove over to Sheppard's business, Southwest Strings, 1721 S. Cherrybell Stravenue, and dropped off a photo of himself. He said he did not know how that same photo ended up in a handbill produced and distributed by OV Candidates 2004.
In a phone interview May 3 Adler said the activities of people not related to his committee have nothing to do with whether any of the candidates have had any input on the expenditures his committee has made or whether his committee has had any input to the expenditures of their committees.
"You're referring to someone independent of OV Candidates 2004 and you're referring to services or a donation made not by our (committee) but to somebody unrelated to our (committee) and that perhaps suggests or implies cooperation with the (committee) and that's not fair to make that kind of an inference and to publicize that," Adler said.
Culver said she has given her fliers to more than a dozen people to distribute and was not aware someone had attached her flier to an OV Candidates 2004 flier and distributed it in Sun City.
She said because she has been so cautious about not having anything to do with the independent committee, she was uncertain if she was even allowed to admonish her volunteers not to co-mingle committee campaign materials and activities.
"I have made it a point to not let the words OV Candidates come out of my mouth," Culver said.
However, she said Sheppard is a friend of hers and she's been told by her advisors that associating with her is not a violation of OV Candidates 2004's independence.
"Celta is a friend of a mine, she and I can talk about Chicos (clothing store) and we can go to lunch and talk about the maintenance yard next door to her, we just do not go near anything having to do with the (independent committee). She has designers that work for her, that I have paid, or will pay, because it's one of these things that at the end of the campaign I get this bill for the hours. So I have utilized services from her company. I've been told that that is fine. People who work for her are not the (independent committee). Several candidates have had their fliers designed by these people because they're good designers," Culver said.
Hauser said in an interview May 3 she agrees with Adler that members of his committee merely associating with the candidates is not evidence of "coordination and direction" but said he should at least expect that it would raise questions.
"By having that kind of relationship it defies logic that there isn't going to be at least questions raised about it," Hauser said.
She said she is uncertain what her client will want to do if the county attorney or attorney general declines to investigate the issue. State law allows for her client to file suit and act as a "private Attorney General" but she said her client told her he or she will not do so if it comes to that.
"If nothing happens with this other than waking everybody up that you have to be careful and that doing certain things can lead you into campaign finance violations, well, then that's a good thing," Hauser said.
The town council election is May 18.