Monday, August 23, 2004

With Big Money, Corporation Tries Strong-Arm Tactics with Local DA

Recently released post-election campaign finance reports show that the unsuccessful recall effort of Humboldt County's District Attorney Paul Gallegos was the most expensive election in the county's history, costing some $700,000. Past elections averaged around $100,000 in spending.

The campaign to recall Gallegos started soon after he sued Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) over lying to state negotiators during the 1999 Headwaters Forest deal. PALCO and its parent corporation, Houston-based Maxxam, donated a quarter of a million dollars to the recall campaign, including some $70,000 towards local signature-gatherers to get the recall on the March ballot. The PALCO contributions provided the overwhelming majority of pro-recall contributions.

There is nothing wrong with the recall process per se. As citizens of a democracy, we should have the right to remove politicians from office for corruption, incompetence, or criminal acts. But when corporations can use their huge financial advantages to essentially buy themselves a recall election, our democracy suffers. This is especially true when the corporation does so to retaliate against an elected official for representing the public interest against the corporation.

If Californians want their public officials to be accountable to them instead of a few corporations, they should push their representatives to close the loophole that allows powerful wealthy interests like PALCO to make unlimited contributions towards ballot initiatives and recalls that are often little more than corporate strong-arm tactics.

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I’m puzzled how our representatives are going to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court case that prohibits limitations on ballot initiative spending. I strongly disagree with the decision, but it is the US SUPREME COURT and we have to abide by the ruling.

Bob Stern
In response:
First, for those readers who don't know him, Bob Stern is the President of the Center for Governmental Studies. They do great work, and he's been working hard for reform for the past 30 years. We're honored to have him reading our post and offering our first comment.

But, on the substance, I couldn't disagree with him more. Generally speaking, we all have a duty to uphold the Constitution. But, the Constitution set up a balance of power between the Courts, The Congress, and the President, the states, and we the people.

When a majority of justices on the Supreme Court decide that money is speech and our democracy is up for sale, the rest of us have a moral obligation to set them straight. One way to do this is to encourage our elected representatives to pass laws that defy past Court rulings, so as to present new test cases that can eventually reverse wrongheaded decisions.

A good case in point would be Albuquerque, New Mexico and the state of Vermont. Both have mandatory spending limits, in direct defiance of the wrongheaded 1976 Supreme Court ruling Buckely v. Valeo. But, these cases may now be heading to a different Supreme Court, which could decide differently.

If the Court's still refuse to bend, then citizens can consider a constitutional amendment. There have been efforts in the US Senate to pass an amendment to allow mandatory spending limits for the past 20 years.

As to Ned's original post dealing with corporate contribuitons to recalls and ballot questions, Montana passed a law in 1996 to ban corporate contribuitons to ballot campaigns. A lower court struck it down, finding that corporate money hadn't corrupted the ballot process in Montana (even if Montana citizens thought it had). When the case was appealed, three different judges on the 10th Circuit court of appeals had three different opinions on this. One said that the ban was definitely constitutional, and one said it definitely wasn't. A third said that it might be, but in this instance she wasn't ready to overrule the lower judge. But, she invitied other states to try again, if they could prove that corporate money had corrupted their process. Humboldt County looks like a good candidate to me.
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