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Over the next four weeks, Perata will likely flood cable TV with political ads and blanket the city with glossy mailers. A legal opinion issued by the Oakland City Attorney's Office last week effectively allows him to exceed the city's spending cap, and he probably won't have to face potential consequences until well after the election. The opinion, coupled with the city's cumbersome process for investigating campaign finance violations, also likely means that voters won't know for sure whether Perata has broken any laws until after they've cast their ballots.
Kaplan argued that the opinion means that Oakland essentially "has no campaign finance law." The opinion was prompted by questions Kaplan raised about spending by Perata and the Sacramento group with close ties to him, Coalition for a Safer California. The group recently declared that it had exceeded Oakland's spending threshold for independent committees, thereby lifting all expenditure caps in the mayor's race. And Perata told reporters last week that he, too, had exceeded the city's spending limit of $379,000 for mayoral candidates.
Kaplan noted that Perata and the Coalition for a Safer California effectively turned Oakland's campaign finance law on its head. The law was written in the 1990s to allow a candidate to exceed the expenditure cap if some group spends large sums attacking that candidate. But a loophole in the law also lets Perata benefit from the group that supports him — Coalition for a Safer California — by allowing him to overspend if it overspends, too.
Kaplan and Quan had contended that the Oakland Public Ethics Commission should decide whether caps have been lifted in the mayor's race. But the new legal opinion, written by Supervising Deputy City Attorney Mark Morodomi and signed by City Attorney John Russo, said that there is no provision in Oakland law for the Ethics Commission to make such a finding. Instead, the opinion essentially says that Kaplan, Quan, or someone else will have to file a complaint against Perata with the Ethics Commission before it can be determined whether he has gone over the $379,000 cap in violation of city law.
However, Dan Purnell, the Ethics Commission's executive director, indicated in an interview that it could take weeks, or perhaps months, to fully investigate such complaints. The investigation would have to include an examination of whether the Perata-linked group actually exceeded the city's cap or not. In other words, there likely won't be any determination before the election as to whether Perata has broken the law. Dan Siegel, Quan's campaign attorney, described the city's bureaucratic process for investigating campaign lawbreaking as "glacial, on a good day."
Kaplan and Quan had hoped that the Oakland City Council would step in to help stop Perata. But last week, the council's Rules Committee voted 3-1 to refer the matter to the Ethics Commission, effectively killing any hope of clarifying Oakland law before November 2.
But that doesn't mean that Perata is a now a shoe-in for mayor. By last week, Meg Whitman had spent more than $120 million of her own fortune, and was still trailing Jerry Brown in several polls. Likewise, the three other major candidates in the Oakland mayor's race still have a shot at beating Perata — particularly if voters take advantage of ranked choice voting.
Under the new voting system, voters can select their top three choices for mayor. So far in the polls, Perata has had trouble getting over the 50-percent mark because he doesn't get enough second- and third-place votes. That leaves the door open for one of the other three to slip by him in the balloting if enough voters leave him off their ballots completely, and instead select some combination of Quan, Kaplan, and Tuman.
It's no wonder that Perata spent months last year trying to kill ranked choice voting for this election.
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