Loop the Loophole 

Prop. 34? What Prop. 34?; Feeble Playboy-Pampering Commission; Strange but true reader tales; and free speech's final resting place.

Everyone is giving Cruz Bustamante a hard time for attempting to exploit a loophole in state campaign finance law to skirt the recall election's individual donation cap of $21,200. But the press has given a free ride to one East Bay pol who has taken checks exceeding that -- and he's not even running for governor.

Antioch state Senator Tom Torlakson, who's up for re-election next year, accepted $25,000 checks from Shapell Industries and an American Standard Development executive in June. Under Prop. 34, the state's voter-approved campaign finance law, the max someone like Shapell can legally donate to a state senator in an election is $3,200. So isn't Tommy Slick breaking the law? Nope. Like Bustamante, he's simply exploiting an incumbent-friendly loophole that compels challengers to heed the donation cap.

Torlakson's big donations are legal because they were made to a campaign committee established prior to January 2001, when Prop. 34 took effect. "Friends of Tom Torlakson" was formed in 1995 when the Democrat was a state Assembly hopeful.

Invitations to a Torlakson fund-raiser in Discovery Bay three months ago subtly reminded Tom's well-wishers: "This is a pre-Prop. 34 committee and contributions can be made in unlimited amounts."

During the first half of 2003, records show that the politician raised $331,027, including a $15,000 donation from AKT Development and three $10,000 checks from other sources, in addition to the two $25K checks. Before a Sacramento judge shut down his money-Martinizing operation this week, Bustamante used his own pre-34 committee to accept $1.5 million from a casino-owning Indian tribe.

But Torlakson assures Bottom Feeder that he won't use tricky accounting to transfer cash (as Bustamante planned to do) from the old committee into his 2004 re-election campaign, which is subject to the donation cap. He adds that his "Friends" committee is really an "officeholder" account meant to pay for things such as travel, business meals, pens, and paper clips. That sounds sorta reasonable except that records show he spent $35,600 from that account on campaign fund-raising consultants during the first half of the year. True, but they're not raising dough for his re-election, Torlakson insists.

The admitted reason Torlakson wants the extra cash is that he's planning a bid to become the Senate's president pro tem after current prez John Burton of Frisco gets termed out next year. To do so, he needs to buy the support of the California Democratic Party and fellow Democrats throughout the state who are running for the legislature.

Torlakson, not surprisingly, prefers to think of it as being a "team player."

Feeders shouldn't get the mistaken impression that Tommy T. is the only state lawmaker using legal trickery to raise extra ducats. More than a year ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Burton and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson had raised millions using their old campaign committees. Don Perata, another local state Senator with his eye on Burton's post, has done it too. This week's court smackdown of Bustamante, however, could also stop state legislators from using the same loophole the vice-guv did.

It's Fair to Larry

The previous fund-raising loophole was brought to you in part by the Fair Political Practices Commission, whose ad slogan should be "The FPPC: making politics safer for incumbents and more confusing for everyone else."

The commission played a key role in the loophole drama thanks to its creative regulatory interpretations of Prop. 34 shortly after the initiative passed. Then, earlier this month, the agency refused to do anything to prevent Bustamante from abusing its rules. Not that any of this should come as a surprise. This is the same flaccid group of regulators that a year ago refused to prohibit lobbyists from personally delivering campaign donations to the politicians they lobby. The FPPC was considering such a prohibition following the Oracle scandal, which has been largely overlooked by enemies of Gov. Gray Davis. But it's a microcosm of why voters despise him.

A quick recap: In May 2001, Silicon Valley software giant Oracle scored a $95 million, no-bid contract with the state. Days later, Oracle lobbyist Ravi Mehta -- the former FPPC chair, no less -- delivered a $25,000 contribution to a Davis aide on behalf of his client. State auditors later blasted the deal as wasteful.

Well, the FPPC has finally recovered something from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Earlier this summer, it fined him for not filing all the required paperwork when he donated $25,000 to Arnold Schwarzenegger's after-school initiative last year. How much did the commission fine the $18 billion playboy? Four hundred bucks.

Hell, Larry probably keeps more than that in his mobile chick-magnet.

Smokin' His Dad

The following dysfunctional family tale comes from Feeder-reader Steve Heilig, director of public health and education for the San Francisco Medical Society, and a well-known anti-tobacco crusader. His dad, meanwhile, is a lifelong smoker suffering from emphysema. Dad, who lives in Orange County and is partial to menthols, called his smoke-free kid and asked for a favor: He wanted Steve to buy him a carton of a new RJ Reynolds menthol brand called Salem Black Label, a "full-flavored" cancer-stick with a lot more tar and nicotine than most brands. Dad had heard the only place you could find 'em on the West Coast was in San Francisco.

Yeah, it was an awkward request, but the son points out he isn't going to convert the old man this late in the game. He dutifully scoured Frisco for the cigarettes, but no luck. Then Steve discovered that in California Black Labels are available only in Oakland. This naturally reminded him of how booze-peddlers have targeted black communities with fortified malt liquors and wines in the past. David Howard, a spokesman for RJ Reynolds, insists that the product placement has nothing to do with race, but rather sales figures showing that menthols are way popular in Oaktown.

Heilig indeed found his dad's Black Labels in Oakland. They were on sale. So instead of buying a carton, the son says, "I got two packs for the price of one and made a few bucks off my dad."

The moral? Hell if we know.

Free Speech R.I.P.

Bottom Feeder hereby urges all journalists to banish the phrase "Birthplace of the Free Speech Movement" from their Berkeley stories. The cliché, as it were, is invariably recycled for stories on the city's most enduring pastime: stealing newspapers.

Berkeley, in fact, has a long, disgraceful history of free newspapers being lifted when their content was deemed objectionable to some zealot -- or mayoral candidate. Matter of fact, we've received several reports of last week's Express -- which took a critical look at Berkeley's heavy-handed preservationists -- being stolen en masse from city racks.

Birthplace perhaps; graveyard definitely.


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