Federal complaint filed against San Jose congressional candidate Sam Liccardo
Former Mayor Sam Liccardo celebrates his early lead in the congressional race Tuesday night. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Silicon Valley congressional candidate Sam Liccardo is facing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging his campaign is coordinating a “dark money” effort to fund a highly-criticized recount in the Congressional District 16 race. 

Max Zarzana, a 25-year prosecutor and president of the Santa Clara County Government Attorneys Association, filed a complaint with the federal political watchdog on Friday. He accused the former San Jose mayor’s campaign of engaging in a “secret scheme to illegally coordinate with a newly-formed dark money Super PAC to do his CD-16 recount bidding.” He said the move is in line with his “past anti-transparent behavior.”

The FEC will determine whether the complaint is credible before opening an investigation to determine whether the campaign violated election laws.

Zarzana said there’s evidence showing Liccardo’s campaign coordinated the recount. Liccardo’s campaign conducted a poll that explored how well he would do in a three or two-way race just a few days after the election results were certified. On April 9, just hours before the deadline, Jonathan Padilla, a former mayoral campaign staffer and “close confidant” of Liccardo, requested a recount in the primary election. That same day a super PAC called “Count the Vote” was formed and is now funding the recount.

Behind the super PAC are individuals previously paid by Liccardo who have close ties to the ex-mayor and his campaign.

The super PAC lists James Sutton of Rutan & Tucker, LLP as its treasurer, and it has already spent $96,000 on the recount, according to the FEC complaint. Another attorney from the firm, Matthew Alvarez, serves as treasurer for “Neighbors for Results,” a separate PAC that has spent more than $200,000 to support Liccardo in the race. Padilla, who previously worked on Liccardo’s 2014 mayoral campaign and is the requester for the recount, authorized Sutton and Alvarez to act on his behalf.

“No reasonable person would believe that Sam’s close personal friend and former staffer, Jonathan Padilla, went to all of this trouble because he loves democracy,” Zarzana said. “But now (Liccardo) wants to fit right in with the Washington Beltway and is doing this deal in plain sight. It’s an affront to our system of fair and open elections and must be investigated.”  

Zarzana said Liccardo is “known for backroom deals,” and points to Liccardo’s efforts to skirt transparency laws under the public records request. A judge ruled in August that Liccardo and the city violated the California Public Records Act by failing to search for and release records from his private email account, costing taxpayers $500,000.

Orrin Evans, spokesperson for Liccardo’s campaign, was unaware of the complaint when San José Spotlight initially reached out.

Assemblymember Evan Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian are tied for second in the Congressional District 16 race with 30,249 votes each. The two have seesawed between razor thin margins for weeks, vying to join Liccardo in the November general election.

A tie for second place means both candidates will advance to the general election, though a recount is expected to change the results.

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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