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PAC pushes Sacramento arena vote but won't say where it is getting money

Orange County group won't disclose why it's joined effort

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 - 8:20 am

A conservative Orange County political action committee that's pushing a public vote on Sacramento's proposed NBA arena has refused to disclose its donors or say why it's involved in the effort.

Representatives of Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods, which historically has run Republican campaigns, denied a series of Sacramento Bee requests this week seeking the group's recent fundraising records.

The Orange County PAC is working alongside a group of Sacramento activists gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would require voters to approve public subsidies for sports facilities. Proponents are aiming for the June 2014 ballot.

Both a spokesman for the petition drive and a political consultant working on the campaign said they did not know where the Southern California group is getting its money. An Orange County consultant identified as the committee's political strategist on the Sacramento arena campaign did not return a phone message and email seeking comment.

The campaign on the other side of the debate, DowntownArena.org, a committee formed by Sacramento building industry interests and Kings fans, released data at The Bee's request showing nearly $15,000 in donations and commitments from sources including business groups and labor unions.

DowntownArena.org supports the city's plan to finance a $448 million arena at the Downtown Plaza with the help of a $258 million public subsidy, most of it derived by borrowing against future city parking revenues.

DowntownArena.org has criticized the ballot measure campaign for what it has charged are misleading statements made by paid signature gatherers.

Under state campaign finance laws, neither group is required to make public the donations it has received since July 1 until the end of October.

Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods' most recent filing with the secretary of state's office recorded on July 18 and reflecting campaign activity through the first six months of the year, showed the committee had $144.50 in its bank account.

Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesman for the petition drive, said he could not provide information on Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods' financing or who leads the committee. "I don't know the answers to any of the questions here," Wilcox wrote in an email.

The group is based in San Juan Capistrano. Its treasurer is an accountant named Barrett Garcia, according to campaign disclosures. Garcia couldn't be reached for comment, but told a Bee editorial writer earlier this week that he was resigning.

Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods is partnering in the signature drive with Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, or STOP, which filed paperwork this week showing it had $10,200 as of June 30. The signature-gathering campaign is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars, suggesting that more money has to be coming from somewhere.

STOP was launched last year by a small group of community activists who argue the city's subsidy of a downtown arena deserves to be put to a vote. In May, Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods announced it was joining STOP.

STOP co-founder Julian Camacho said the Orange County group contacted his organization and volunteered to help, but said the two groups are running separate campaigns. Camacho said he couldn't offer any details about who is involved in the Orange County group or how they are funded.

"I have no idea," he said. "As long as we're basically going down the same path, we are happy with that."

Camacho added that his group doesn't "have a lot of dollars."

A 'general purpose' PAC

Sacramento-based political consultant Tab Berg, who has served as a prominent voice for the arena vote campaign, wrote in an email that he was approached by a representative of Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods "to get more involved." However, he said he has not been paid by the group and does not know where the committee has received its funding.

"I'm an adviser and resource helping with strategic messaging, building the coalition and now assembling the campaign team," Berg said.

When Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods announced that it was partnering with STOP, it identified Brandon Powers as its political consultant. Powers, based in the Orange County city of Seal Beach, was chief of staff for former Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, and is a Republican political strategist.

Powers did not return a phone message or an email seeking comment for this story.

Between 2006 and 2011, the taxpayers group paid Powers or his firm a total of $42,828, state campaign finance records show.

Wilcox, the spokesman for the petition drive, is a Republican consultant whose firm, Multiplicity Media, is based in Los Angeles. He served as spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, when Issa helped finance the campaign to recall former Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

Wilcox wrote in an email that the arena petition campaign would "comply with each and every legal requirement and do it in a timely manner." He said he does not work directly for Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods and does not expect to receive money from the group.

Instead, Wilcox said he was asked by Berg to serve as spokesman for the signature campaign.

Nine-year-old Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods is one of many political action committees that float from campaign to campaign, serving as disposable vehicles for donors and political groups. It has spent tens of thousands of dollars on mostly Republican races in Southern California, but also worked on a Yuba County supervisors race.

"There's certainly a lot of committees like that, general purpose committees," said Newcastle political consultant Chris Jones, who was hired by the group in 2011 and 2012 to work on local elections in the Orange County city of Lake Forest. "Rather than destroy them at the end of every campaign, you keep the entity ongoing."

'Drawing a blank'

Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry, who was opposed by a candidate backed by Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods in a 2008 City Council race, said using the group as the fundraising conduit "added layers of difficulty in finding out who the money people are. That's why you use something like that." Campaign finance disclosures show the taxpayers group spent more than $90,000 trying to oust Curry.

In Yuba County, the group helped Supervisor Andy Vasquez beat back a 2010 challenge from Rachel Farrell. The group spent $11,600 on a direct-mail piece accusing medical clinic owner Farrell of using taxpayer money to support a lavish lifestyle, according to a story in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Farrell denied the charges but lost the race. She couldn't be reached for comment for this story.

Asked about the taxpayers group, Vasquez said, "I'm drawing a blank right now."

An array of Sacramento interest groups and businesses are lining up to oppose the effort to force a public vote on the city's arena plan. DowntownArena.org has formed a committee opposing the proposed arena ballot measure but had not reported donations as of Wednesday.

Still, the organization provided The Bee on Wednesday with a list of donors who paid for legal advice and a robocall last weekend urging city voters not to sign the arena petitions. The group also released the names of six other organizations and individuals who have committed funding.

So far, the committee has raised $9,325 and has commitments of more than $3,000 that it expects to receive in the coming days, said Josh Wood, the head of Region Builders, a building industry group running the pro-arena campaign.

The largest donor is the political action committee for Region Builders, which provided $5,000 to the effort.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers donated $2,500 and the Sacramento Builders Exchange gave $1,000. Wood said DowntownArena.org has a $1,500 commitment from local architectural firm Lionakis, as well as pledges from the local ironworkers union and the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce.

A list of organizations supporting the downtown arena group can be found at www.DowntownArena.org.

TOP DONORS

Donations made to DowntownArena.org, an effort to avoid a vote on the city of Sacramento's subsidy of a new arena:

Region Builders PAC: $5,000 loan

National Electrical Contractors Association/International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: $2,500

Lionakis, an architectural firm: $1,500 (commitment)

Sacramento Builders Exchange PAC: $1,000

Porter Law Group: $500 (commitment)

Scott Maxwell: $500 (commitment)

John Nunan: $500 (commitment)

A list of the organizations supporting the group can be found at www.DowntownArena.org.

Source: Region Builders, DowntownArena.org

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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