Who paid for these ads? San Jose mayor candidates’ ads prompt questions
San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis is pictured in this file photo.

As the race for San Jose mayor ramps up, two candidates are raising eyebrows over potential campaign violations.

If complaints are filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, it might decide to investigate, said Sean McMorris, a policy consultant to watchdog group California Common Cause.

The actions of San Jose Councilmembers Dev Davis and Matt Mahan, both of whom are running to replace San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo after he terms out next year, have raised questions from some residents over who paid for their recent Facebook ads.

Under the California Political Reform Act, political advertisements must clearly name the parties that have paid for them—even on social media platforms. For both of the officials, it’s the issue of poor labeling that has prompted questions.

Screenshot of Councilmember Dev Davis’ Facebook ads that launched last week.

Davis, representing District 6 since 2017, announced her mayoral candidacy in April. A new Facebook ad posted on Sept. 26 which features a YouTube video of former Mayor Chuck Reed endorsing her campaign, says it was paid for by a committee she established for her council re-election campaign last year. Another version of the post was also added a day later. She paid less than $100 for both ads.

It is illegal for Davis’ old campaign to foot the bills for political advertisements for her mayoral bid, per state and city law. Davis denies the allegation.

“The ads that you referred to are paid for by my 2022 campaign,” Davis told San José Spotlight via email. “The disclaimer is incorrect.”

Leftover money from her 2020 campaign was donated to the city’s general fund, Davis said. San José Spotlight confirmed that Davis’ committee transferred more than $6,000 to San Jose and the committee was terminated June 1.

Davis said her campaign “paused the ads immediately” and sent a request to update the disclaimers after San José Spotlight started asking questions.

Potential investigation

But the two ads, which are still live as of Wednesday, violated campaign laws because of their inaccuracies and could be grounds for an investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, McMorris said.

“If it’s the wrong information, they should stop airing the ad and then republish it with the correct information,” McMorris said. “In terms of enforcement, a complaint would need to be filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission.”

If a complaint is filed, Davis’ campaign would have seven days to respond. Then the FPPC would determine whether to investigate and possibly issue a warning letter or fine.

“If it’s a first offense, often a candidate will just get a warning letter, which will stay on their record,” McMorris said.

McMorris said it’s easy for local candidates to fall out of compliance because campaign disclosure laws are complicated and change so often.

“You’d be surprised how often a local politician just has their husband or wife do their campaign finance reports — and that’s not a good idea,” he said. “So intentional or not, mistakes happen quite often I think.”

In Davis’ situation, her husband Chris is listed as the treasurer.

Office paying for campaign ads?

Screenshot of Councilmember Matt Mahan’s Facebook ads that launched last week.

A freshman councilmember, Mahan kicked off his mayoral campaign on Saturday.

Unlike his colleagues on the council, Mahan has routinely boosted Facebook posts to promote his policies and different positions in his office, according to Facebook’s ad library. He has spent about $1,000 on two dozen ads since April 2020, the library shows.

The ads range from District 10’s report on issues like COVID-19 and San Jose’s retirement costs, to job listings—and most recently, Mahan’s solutions for the housing and homelessness crises. Five out of seven most recent Facebook ads on Mahan’s account promoted his policies.

All of them have the same disclosure: “Paid for by Councilmember Matt Mahan.” This raises questions because public officials are prohibited from using city funds for campaigning. Mahan’s last ad posted three days before he announced his run for mayor.

Social media companies started requiring political advertisements to disclose who paid for them, after misinformation spread rapidly during the 2020 elections.

Mahan said he paid for the ads himself, although his “advertiser” profile links to his council office and email.

“I pay for all of my social media ads out of pocket to avoid any conflict of interest,” he told San José Spotlight via email. “No office funds have been spent on these or any past ads.”

He added that the city attorney is aware of—and has authorized—the use of his official Facebook account for both city and campaign content. Mahan has removed links to his social media from city websites, per the city’s policy.

McMorris said he doesn’t see an issue—as long as taxpayer monies are not involved in boosting political posts.

“They are allowed to have their own council or candidate Facebook pages to promote themselves and their policies on those pages,” McMorris said. “As long as they’re using their own campaign funds and not city funds.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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