Chief Ethics Officer Bill Baber Called Deceptive Campaign Mailers
In his community service, Bill Baber helps punish political violators as a member of the San Diego Ethics Commission, deciding if or when rules have been broken and whether penalties should be imposed.
He is also an elected part-time member of the La Mesa City Council.
But in his day job, Baber is a professional campaign treasurer, and this season one of his clients — an independent spending committee — distributed thousands of direct mailers containing false and misleading information.
A recent mailing calling itself “La Mesa Democratic Voter Guide” distributed by Citizens For a Better East County included several registered Republican candidates. A “Democratic Voter’s Guide to Carlsbad” published by the same group also urged voters to vote for Republican candidates.
It’s unclear why the group is distributing campaign mailings in northern San Diego County. The only contact address for the committee is Baber’s office in La Mesa.
Baber is also a member of the board of directors of the San Diego Association of Governments, a powerful group of public officials responsible for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on regional planning efforts.
The SANDAG and San Diego ethics committee member is the only publicly disclosed committee officer behind the shippers.
He said he had nothing to do with the content of the campaign mailings from the committees of which he is the treasurer.
“At best, I can approve of the disclaimer,” Baber said when asked about his involvement in misleading political advertising.
“So asking me why one of my clients made a strategic or artistic decision is like asking the Petco field crew who the Padres should start against the Dodgers,” he said. “It’s not my job!”
Specifically, shippers suggest that La Mesa mayoral candidate Kristine Alessio and La Mesa City Council candidate Laura Lothian are Democrats. County records show both women are registered Republicans.
Another letter implies that Carlsbad City Council candidate Melanie Burkholder is a Democrat while she is also registered as a Republican.
The flyers also endorse Keith Blackburn for Mayor of Carlsbad, Jordan Marks for County Assessor, Sharon McKeeman for a seat on the Carlsbad Unified School District Board of Trustees and other registered Republicans.
At the same time, they recommend backing well-known Democrats, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and National Assembly Member Akilah Weber of La Mesa.
Senders are funded by an independent spending committee, so candidates are legally prohibited from coordinating with groups. They note that they are not authorized or controlled by approved candidates.
Only a handful of Republican candidates contacted about misleading senders responded to requests for comment.
“I’m endorsed by firefighters, law enforcement, civil rights officials and the San Diego Union-Tribune for being an honest, straightforward person with a record the community trusts,” said Marks, the nominee. county assessor. “I have nothing to do with it.”
Blackburn also said the mail was distributed without her consent or involvement.
“I don’t endorse a misleading message sent by anyone to voters,” he said. “If I had been contacted to be included, I would have refused.”
At the La Mesa council meeting last week, Lothian distanced himself from shippers after resident Janet Castaños publicly complained about them.
“I have nothing to do with this shipper,” the council member said from the dais. “I would never claim to be a Democrat. This article was posted by people I don’t even know. I’m very upset about this, personally.
Citizens For a Better East County also did not respond to an interview request. Baber said he would contact his clients on behalf of the Union-Tribune, but no one from the committee returned messages.
Becca Taylor, interim chairwoman of the San Diego Democratic Party, said last week she was disappointed to learn of campaign mailings aligning Republicans with her political party.
“In every way, the mailings sent by this Republican (political action committee) are cynical, misleading and insulting to the intelligence of voters,” she said by email. “As treasurer of the PAC and only publicly traded officer, councilman Bill Baber is trying to perpetuate voter fraud – tricking Democrats into voting for Republicans.”
The county Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission and is asking Baber to resign from the San Diego Ethics Commission.
“By his association with these disgusting campaign tactics, he does not deserve to hold a position of public trust responsible for enforcing political ethics laws,” Taylor said.
The party’s attorney also sent a cease and desist letter demanding a retraction and a public apology.
On Friday, Baber said his customers had agreed to stop distributing misleading political mail. The treasurer did not respond to the San Diego Ethics Committee’s request for resignation.
Sharon Spivak, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission, said earlier in the week that it would be inappropriate for her to comment on misleading campaign mailings with Baber’s contact information because she reports and serves the will of the commissioners.
The misleading campaign mailings come as Democrats widen their registration lead over Republicans in San Diego County.
According to the latest voter registration reports released by the county registrar, Democrats have registered just over 794,000 people — more than 277,000 voters than the Republican Party — as of Sept. 30.
Republican registration declined between Aug. 31 and Sept. 30, the county registrar reported, dropping from just over 517,000 registered voters to just over 516,000.
The drop in Republican voter registration comes as more candidates disavow the party. District Attorney Summer Stephan and Deputy Sheriff Kelly Martinez, for example, are no longer registered as Republicans.
Baber said he avoids working on campaigns within the San Diego city limits to avoid any conflicts of interest between his political work and his ethics commission service.
It has up to 50 clients at a time and does not monitor the fairness or accuracy of their political messages.
“For a remedy in this area, you go to the civil courts and argue over libel and slander and infringement (of intellectual property) etc.,” he said. “If I could rid the world of shitty mail with the wave of a magic wand, I would. I just don’t have that wand.
Union-Tribune reporter Blake Nelson contributed to this report.