BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
About three months ago, the City of Long Beach initiated an investigation into the behind-the-scenes campaign strategies used by two people who tried to help Ahmed Saafir in his bid to unseat incumbent 6th District Long Beach City Councilman Dee Andrews in the April 8 municipal election. Formal charges have yet to be filed against the two Saafir supporters– Charlotte Gibson and Latanisha McClure– but that could change soon.
“We are also trying to find out about an organization called the California Association Against Bad Teachers, which is potentially a defendant as well,” said Monte Machit, senior deputy city attorney. He noted that city investigators have not been successful in finding out who ran the now defunct organization. One of the fliers in question listed an incorrect post office box for the association.
“The allegation is in relation to a couple of campaign fliers that were mailed during the 2008 elections,” Machit said. “We believe that either McClure or Gibson failed to comply with the Long Beach municipal code pertaining to independent expenditures.”
Machit explained that there is no limit to how much a person or group that is not part of a formal election campaign organization can spend in support of a candidate, but they must keep records of donations and report any expenditures beyond a set limit. “They have to report to the city clerk any independent expenditures that they make beyond $250,” he said. “They also have to keep a record of donations they have received and they cannot make independent expenditures in excess of the amount they collected.” Machit noted that Gibson, McClure and the association might have violated state election laws as well.
Machit explained that city officials suspect election code violations because the fliers appeared to have been created professionally and may have cost thousands of dollars to design, print and mail. “We have no record of them reporting the cost of the production and mailing of the flier, nor of them listing from whom they collected the money to print and mail the flier,” he said.
The fliers reminded voters that Andrews had been convicted of selling cocaine in the 1980s while he was a teacher at Wilson High School. Andrews characterized the fliers as part of a smear campaign that backfired against his opponent. “Everybody already knew about my past, but that was over a long time ago,” he said. “What matters now is that we deal with the present, and the people of this community know I am looking out for them, and trying to help them in their struggles.” After the fliers were mailed to residents in the 6th District, Andrews refused to participate in an NAACP forum that was supposed to include him and Saafir. In spite of the fliers, Andrews went on to win the election by a landslide.
Neither the comments in the fliers nor their distribution were illegal, but failure to report their costs to the city clerk may have been a violation of the city’s election code. “Where did they get that kind of money?” Andrews asked. “Somebody else had to be involved, and I hope the city attorney finds out who that was.”
“What we need to do is conduct a discovery process to satisfy the question as to whether there has been a violation,” Machit said. He explained that discovery entails taking sworn out-of-court testimonies, known as depositions, of witnesses involved in the creation, production and mailing of the flier. “Miss McClure has denied that she has violated any laws. We have not been able to locate Miss Gibson,” Machit added.
Violations could be classified as misdemeanors, but, if it files charges, the city attorney’s office will prosecute them in a civil court. “If the defendants are found guilty of election code violations, they will be ordered to pay a fine but won’t have to serve any time behind bars,” Machit explained.
Jason Buccat, a member of Willoughby and Associates, a law firm based in Culver City, is representing McClure. “We are in the middle of litigation and I cannot give you any specifics of the case,” Buccat said. “But I don’t think she has done anything wrong.”
Without commenting on what McClure may have done, Buccat explained that, in his estimation, the city ordinance is not constitutional and cannot be enforced.
“What we are looking at here is the city bringing a civil lawsuit against one of its constituents for exercising her right to free speech,” he said. “Our position at this point is that the charges pending against my client and Charlotte Gibson are not within constitutional limits.”
As of press time, Saafir, who sits on the Long Beach Civil Service Commission, had not returned a call made to him by the Signal Tribune.