California attorney general’s taxpayer-funded political advertising (Opinion)
We hate to pick on Attorney General Rob Bonta two weeks in a row, but he’s really given us no choice. Last week we chronicled his hypocrisy on data privacy by posturing as a champion on that issue while negligently allowing his Department of Justice to release sensitive information on Californians who hold carry concealed weapons permits.
What spurred today’s critique was an article in the Sacramento Bee with the headline, “Why is California’s Attorney General spending taxpayer money to send you emails?” First, a hat tip to the Sacramento Bee — typically no friend of conservatives — and its reporter Ryan Sabalow.
The article reports that two months before the June primary election, millions of California voters received an email from Bonta’s Department of Justice with the subject line, “I want to hear from you.” The message was from an official email account and reads, “As Attorney General, protecting California and its people is my highest priority” and “your opinion truly matters to me.”
Those receiving the email might have wondered what it was all about. After all, it is unusual to receive an unsolicited email from a state agency unless you’ve opted in to remain informed on a particular topic.
But it’s really no mystery at all. Prior to the primary election, Bonta was serving as the appointed, but unelected, attorney general. No doubt that his name ID wasn’t very high and he was willing to do anything possible to elevate his profile. That’s one reason he directed his staff — shortly after his appointment — to include his smiling visage on these email solicitations to as many as 7 million voters.
The Bee article, citing several sources, accurately notes that what Bonta did was technically legal, even if ethically questionable. Indeed, the question of the extent to which elected officials or government agencies expend taxpayer dollars for political advocacy or “self-promotion” is one the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association gets a lot. In fact, our Public Integrity Project was formed precisely to monitor and to litigate when necessary illegal expenditures of public funds for illegal activity.
Fortunately, HJTA has had a string of successes in the courtroom including an action against Los Angeles County for producing a slick television ad advocating the passage of a sales tax to address homelessness. That action resulted in a $1.3 million fine against the county. Other successful legal actions include a suit against California’s then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla for spending an unauthorized $35 million contract with a politically connected public relations firm that referred to itself as “Team Biden” on its own website, ostensibly for nonpartisan “voter outreach” and public education.
The bad news is that there is a very high bar to prove illegality when it comes to public expenditures for non-election-related public relations campaigns. Rarely will an elected official or government entity be so foolish to use taxpayer funds for ads that say “Vote for Me” or “Vote for Measure X.”
But just because “outreach” communications, such as those emails sent by Bonta, may be technically legal, that doesn’t mean that they are ethically defensible. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing the law against other Californians. It looks pretty bad for him to skirt the law himself.
Citizens who want to learn more about illegal use of public funds for political purposes can go to hjta.org/resources/taxpayer-tools/stop-illegal-government-spending.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
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