Dirty tricks claimed in Merced-area Assembly campaign

Adam Gray
Adam Gray Merced Sun-Star file

Republicans are illegally funneling big money to Jack Mobley’s campaign in a late push to unseat Adam Gray in the California Assembly, says a complaint to state ethics enforcers filed by a Democratic activist from Ceres.

Mobley’s camp denied the charge and called the complaint “fabricated.”

The 21st Assembly District covers Merced County and western Stanislaus County, including about half of Modesto and all of Ceres, Patterson and Newman.

In the complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Faye Lane accuses Republicans of laundering money to Mobley for recent hit pieces against Gray, a Merced Democrat. Doing so allows Republicans to skirt campaign contribution limits and to hide billionaire businessman Charles Munger as the true source, Lane says.

Republicans had channeled $325,000 this month to help Mobley by the time Lane filed the complaint, dated Thursday; by Monday, the amount had grown to $497,000, according to disclosures on the California secretary of state’s website.

That far exceeds limits on direct contributions under campaign law. Republicans got around it by using what are known as independent expenditures, which aren’t supposed to be coordinated between candidates and their parties, the complaint says.

Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks legislative races, said the practice is common to both parties. As of Tuesday, Gray had received $54,000 in October independent expenditures.

But Democratic Party attorney Lance Olson said funneling a half-million dollars is “unprecedented in California state politics.”

“Clearly, the Republican party is unable or unwilling to raise funds in compliance with the law,” Olson told The Modesto Bee. “Instead, they have become dependent upon one special interest, Charles Munger,” whose contributions amount to nearly a quarter of all money raised by the GOP this year, Olson said.

Munger has donated $13 million this year, according to state finance reports – half in October independent expenditures. Two years ago, he gave the GOP nearly $43 million; $477,545 wound up with the Republican central committee in Stanislaus County, which distributed $1.7 million from wealthy donors to several candidates throughout the state, leading to a money-laundering probe.

In an unrelated case, the FPPC this year levied a $40,000 money-laundering fine against GOP Sen. Tom Berryhill and his brother, former Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, and Republican committees in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

Republican independent expenditures have raised some eyebrows. Rather than elected GOP leaders calling the shots, state party Chairman Jim Brulte, a former senator, is directing the strategy in an attempt to break the Democratic supermajority in the Assembly. The Los Angeles Times last week called the sudden support to Mobley “the most attention-grabbing move so far.”

Whether it pays off will be seen when votes are counted in two weeks.

Write-in campaign

Gray, who is finishing his first two-year term, easily beat Mobley two years ago, and Mobley lost two earlier campaigns against then-Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who now is in the state Senate.

This year, Mobley followed a nontraditional path as a late write-in candidate for the June primary. That guaranteed his name would appear on the Nov. 4 ballot, even though Gray captured 95 percent of the vote in Stanislaus County and 87 percent in Merced County.

Mobley has openly talked about relying on Republican Party support, telling the Merced Sun-Star that he didn’t want to finance his campaign and that party leaders had persuaded him to run.

“They made some commitments that they’d be there until the end of the race (and) that I would be a focus for them,” Mobley said. That’s clear evidence of collusion, Olson said.

The Sun-Star – a McClatchy newspaper, as is The Modesto Bee – last week quoted Mobley talking about the surge of GOP money, saying, “The party’s supporting me real well and helping to fund me. I’m pretty excited about it.”

Gray this year had raised $389,600 as of Sept. 30, compared with Mobley’s $68,227 in the same period, but that doesn’t include his nearly half-million dollars of late independent expenditures, all in October.

Democrats last week responded by pouring $105,000 into Gray’s campaign through state and county Democratic committees. All came from donors who each gave no more than the $34,000 limit, as opposed to Munger’s $13 million for Republicans this year.

“This independent expenditure is a sham,” Olson said, because the practice “provides no transparency for the public and allows donors to skirt contribution limits.”

The money apparently was used to produce a pro-Mobley mailer claiming that Gray is living an “extravagant lifestyle” funded by “lobbyists and special interests” while “valley families are suffering because of a lack of jobs,” among other pieces.

Two weeks ago, Gray’s campaign criticized Mobley for accepting a relatively paltry $20,000 from a party committee in San Luis Obispo County, circulating a cartoon portraying Mobley as Brulte’s puppet.

Mobley campaign manager Johnny Alvarado said, “There has been no coordination whatsoever between our campaign and the (independent expenditures). This is a fabricated complaint by the Gray campaign to divert the voters’ attention away from the real issue here: his FPPC fines.”

Alvarado referred to a $2,000 penalty Gray paid to the Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting golf rounds donated to his 2012 campaign by the Yocha Dehe tribe. The tribe was fined $9,000 for failing to report nonmonetary contributions after giving golf rounds to Gray and three other politicians.

In March, Gray named Lane woman of the year in his Assembly district. She is a trustee with the Ceres Unified School District.

The FPPC had not received her complaint, typically sent by mail, as of Tuesday, spokesman Jay Wierenga said.

Hoffenblum, the political pundit, said Democrats “may not like the way it works, but there’s no dirty trick about it.”

“Brulte is throwing the dice” in backing Mobley so strongly, Hoffenblum added. “If he wins, he’ll be a hero. If he loses, they’ll say he was wasting money that should have gone elsewhere.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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