California's political watchdog agency has dismissed a complaint by Democrat Kamala Harris, candidate for attorney general, that a national Republican group is conducting an illegal $1.6 million advertising campaign against her.
Harris' complained Monday that the 30-second attack ad by the Republican State Leadership Committee was required to contain a disclaimer listing their top two donors and failed to do so.
The Fair Political Practices Commission tossed the complaint out Tuesday, ruling that the ad is exempt from the requirement because it is "issue advocacy" that does not specifically encourage a vote for or against a candidate.
The FPPC already has decided to tighten standards for issue advocacy, but not until after the Nov. 2 election.
Until then, an attack ad that criticizes a candidate's performance can qualify as issue advocacy if it does not specifically encourage a vote for or against a particular person.
The anti-Harris ad criticizes the Democrat's opposition to the death penalty and her decision not to seek capital punishment for the killer of San Francisco Police Officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004.
The 30-second TV spot, running in Los Angeles, concludes by saying, "Tell Kamala Harris - California's worst criminals deserve the toughest punishment the law allows. No excuses. No exceptions."
Though it attacks Harris, the TV ad does not specifically ask voters to vote for her GOP opponent, Steve Cooley.
The Republican State Leadership Committee is a national group whose stated goal is to elect Republicans to attorney general, secretary of state, lieutenant governor, legislator and other key state offices.
The group is led by Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and counselor to President George W. Bush.
Top contributors include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $2.54 million; the American Justice Partnership, $1.5 million; Altria, $1.3 million; WellPoint Inc., $736,500; and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, $435,000, according to documents filed with the state.
Kevin Spillane, Cooley's spokesman, said he was not surprised by the FPPC's dismissal of the complaint.
"They knew they didn't have a legal leg to stand on," Spillane said. "It was a cheap political stunt and a frivolous complaint."
FPPC Chairman Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist, said the decision to dismiss the Harris complaint was made by commission staff, not by himself. The anti-Harris TV ad is "exactly the type of communication" that led the FPPC to tighten its regulation, though not until after next week's election, he said.
"It's not possible to say without an investigation whether this (ad) would have violated the new rule or not, but there's no question whatsoever that it would have led to the investigation that the Harris campaign requested," Schnur said.
Brian Brokaw, Harris' spokesman, said the ruling suggests that big oil and tobacco companies -- among the group's donors -- are taking advantage of a law that they know is being amended.
"Apparently Steve Cooley has no qualms about it because he is applauding their attack ads," Brokaw said.
"We think the voters will feel otherwise and reject out-of-state special interests who are thumbing their nose at the law with Cooley's full permission and trying to buy this election," Brokaw said.