A fresh fight broke out Wednesday over the proposed public subsidy for Sacramento’s new NBA arena, this time over an allegation that opponents of the subsidy are illegally using voter-registration information for commercial purposes.
In a complaint to the California secretary of state’s elections fraud unit, the pro-arena group DowntownArena.org accused its opponents of using voter lists to pitch the services of a for-profit energy company. “Voter registration information shall not be used for any commercial purpose,” reads the letter from DowntownArena.org.
But John Hyde, a spokesman for the anti-subsidy group STOP, for Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, called the charge “absolutely false.”
The exchange was the latest flare-up between DowntownArena and STOP, which is working on a ballot initiative to force a public vote on the city’s proposed $258 million subsidy for the arena. Last month, DowntownArena filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission that resulted in the dramatic disclosure that a portion of the signature-gathering effort was secretly financed by Chris Hansen, the investor who tried to buy the Kings earlier this year and move them to Seattle.
Hansen apologized to Kings fans for his $100,000 donation, agreed to pay a $50,000 fine to the FPPC and said he will make sure that the signatures gathered with his money won’t be turned over to the City Clerk’s Office. STOP has hired a lawyer to try to gain control of the Hansen-financed signatures; the group needs a total of 22,000 signatures by December to put the subsidy question on next June’s ballot.
Political analysts say STOP was badly wounded by the Hansen revelations. Trying to pump fresh energy into the ballot drive, Hyde said STOP has received new “local donations” and contracted with political consulting firm Momentum Political Services to hire new signature gatherers.
After a hiatus of several weeks, “there are paid people on the street,” Hyde said.
That’s where things have gotten sticky. DowntownArena charged that the signature gatherers hired by Momentum and its principal, Monica Harris, are using the voter information to sell Sacramentans the services of a natural gas utility called Vista Energy.
DowntownArena’s complaint says signature gatherers are going door-to-door, using the voter files, “and offering voters an opportunity to save money on their utility bills by switching to Vista Energy, a for-profit company.”
Joshua Wood, principal of DowntownArena, said he believes the Vista Energy tie-in is being used by Harris’ firm as an additional financial incentive to the signature gatherers. “This is not a legal incentive,” Wood said.
Hyde, however, said there’s no connection between Vista and the petition drive.
It’s true that Harris hired four sales representatives to market Vista’s services, but “those four people are not working for the petition drive,” Hyde said. “There is no cross-pollination.”
An official with Vista, based in Houston, said the company was trying to find out what was happening in Sacramento. “This is nothing that Vista would condone or support or initiate,” said company director Paul Atha.
Harris couldn’t be reached for comment.
Harris and her firm were accused of improprieties last year in connection with a voter registration drive conducted by the Sacramento County Republican Party. The Sacramento County Registrar of Voters rejected thousands of registration cards submitted by Harris’ firm, saying there were numerous examples of voters being switched to the Republican Party against their wishes. An official with the state GOP said last year the party stopped working with Harris because of concerns about her work.
In an unrelated matter, Harris admitted selling bogus raffle tickets in 1999. She was sentenced to a month in jail. In 1994, she pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and one count of trafficking in stolen property in a case in Washington state. She was sentenced to 14 months in prison. She told The Bee last year that her criminal troubles occurred during a rough patch in her life.
“I had a mental breakdown. I stole a work van and left the state. I ended up in a mental hospital after trying to kill myself,” she said.