Silicon Valley education leader pays legal fees with campaign funds
The Santa Clara County Board of Education is pictured in this file photo. Photo by David Alexander.

After dropping a lawsuit against the Santa Clara County Board of Education, Trustee Joseph Di Salvo had one last thing to wrap up: legal fees, which he paid off with campaign funds.

According to Di Salvo’s latest campaign statement covering Oct. 18 to Dec. 31, 2020, he owes $4,885 to law firm Berliner & Cohen, which represented him when he sued the district in August after being censured in a split vote in July. He eventually dropped the suit in September.

Di Salvo Form 460 Page 17 of 23

Di Salvo said that legal fees from the suit totaled about $17,000, with an estimated $12,000 coming out of his own pocket.

“I questioned whether I could use any leftover campaign dollars,” Di Salvo said, adding that he consulted with Deane & Company, a Sacramento-based campaign treasurer service that has worked closely with him, and got a green light.

Di Salvo said he then went to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for assurance and was told the same thing.

“I decided to see if I could use (the campaign money) and it worked out, so I did,” he said.

According to the FPPC, the state’s campaign finance watchdog, campaign expenses can be used to pay off attorney fees if they are directly related to activities for a specific governmental purpose. Campaign funds can be used to pay off debts related to actions such as stopping a defamation case or defending oneself from a defamation case.

“Generally speaking, we don’t comment on specific situations involving specific groups or individuals,” FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga told San José Spotlight. “What I can say is that campaign funds can be used for anything that is considered political, legal or governmental purpose.”

Santa Clata County Board of Education Trustee Joseph Di Salvo. Photo courtesy of Joseph Di Salvo.

The Santa Clara County Board of Education’s bylaws are silent on whether or not campaign funds can be used for legal fees, as long as expenditures are in alignment with state and federal laws, according to district spokesperson Robin Hall.

Di Salvo’s fellow trustees censured him after allegations of gender discrimination materialized in an investigation.

An outside investigator hired by the district concluded that while Di Salvo was more aggressive when he disagreed with women compared to men, he treated men with more respect and deference than women. The investigation also concluded that he repeatedly interrupted women and at times pushed women to change their opinion to one agreeable with his.

The allegations go as far back as 2002 when Di Salvo was principal of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto. Signed letters from two educators claimed Di Salvo had a reputation among female staff for “his ongoing pattern of misogynistic, abusive and aggressive behavior toward women.” They said Di Salvo’s behavior made them feel humiliated, intimidated and undermined.

Di Salvo fought against his censure and said he was denied due process. He claimed in his suit that the censure process was rushed to embarrass him and that fellow Trustee Claudia Rossi treated him “obnoxiously” while he championed charter schools, a cause Di Salvo has long been in favor of.

Di Salvo won reelection last November. His current term expires in 2024. While the optics of using campaign funds to pay for legal expenses might not be the most favorable, Di Salvo said he took care to ensure that everything he did was legal.

“I’m very careful relative to how I spend money that people contributed to my campaign,” Di Salvo said. “I had $11,000 and change left (in legal fees). I’m not seeking office for three-and-a-half years… I’m not doing any mailings, so I made sure it was appropriate with the FPPC. I have no issues.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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