Last month San Jose Inside reported that state Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-San Jose) has owed a Sacramento lobbyist $100,000 since 2008. Apparently the debt to Richie Ross—also a campaign consultant—has been a point of contention for Fong, who’s now running for a seat on the San Jose City Council.
Erica Walters—a partner for San Francisco-based consultancy firm Terris, Barnes & Walters, which is running Fong's council campaign—wrote in an email that Fong’s debt is the result of a “win bonus” following Ross' coordination of the 2008 Assembly race. “The amount outstanding is in dispute, but they are working it out,” she added.
Fong and Ross have both ignored interview requests. But over a five-year period Fong voted in favor of all 35 bills that Ross lobbied on before going to the Assembly floor. Walters insisted that Fong “votes based on the views of his district and his conscience every time.”
Ross has a track record of tacking on lump-sum bills at the end of successful campaigns while charging losers far more modest fees. In 2008, Ross and his son, Joaquin, worked at least seven Assembly campaigns, with two winners owing large sums—Fong and Marty Block. The latter is now a state senator.
Block’s last campaign filing for 2008 noted a $115,000 unpaid bill to Richard Ross for “political advice & strategy.” With only $36,445 on hand, Block spent the first six months of 2009 raising money to pay off the debt—mostly from Ross’ lobbyist clients. The Democratic State Central Committee of CA also threw him $50,000.
For whatever reason, Fong chose not to raise funds to pay down his own debt. By keeping the tab open-ended, however, ethical questions have been raised about whether this constitutes a lobbyist having undue influence over an elected official, as well as whether the expenditure should be reclassified as an in-kind contribution of $100K. The Assembly's Committee on Elections and Redistricting is unlikely to take up the issue, as Fong serves as committee chair. But the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) may consider steps.
“We take the contribution limits seriously and we will take a close look at any attempts to get around it, including if people are purposely carrying debt that they have no intention of paying,” said Gary Winuk, the FPPC’s chief enforcement officer.
The FPPC, or more likely the City Clerk's office, might also want to look at Fong’s fence-straddling. Last year he bought a home in San Jose so he could be within District 1 boundaries to run for a council seat. But campaign disclosure forms filed a day apart in January show that he listed Sunnyvale as his place of residence for an Assembly officeholder account, while San Jose was home for his council campaign.