When Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and his wife traveled to Maui seven years ago, political donors paid for the nearly $9,000 trip through a fundraising account rarely used in California politics.
It was the first of several trips covered by those campaign donations, and it began years of unprecedented spending from a war chest that’s paid for $340,000 in travel, groceries, restaurant meals, hotels, office and retail store purchases, a security system and donations to politicians, causes and civic groups.
The activity reflects the packed schedule of meetings and fundraisers that have helped Spitzer establish a wide network of supporters at a time when he has acknowledged his sights are set on another job: Orange County district attorney, possibly as soon as 2018.
The spending is unusual but legal, experts say, so long as everything Spitzer bought was connected to his role with the Orange County Republican Party’s governing Central Committee, a political strategy and endorsement group that last held an election in 2012.
Spitzer, who is chairman of the Board of Supervisors and is up for re-election as Third District supervisor next year, declined several requests to discuss the spending in detail, including the purpose of the Hawaii trip.
However, in a Nov. 14 email to the Register, Spitzer defended his use of the Central Committee fund.
“I run Todd Spitzer, the elected official, like a business. This is a 365-day-a-year enterprise for me. The bulk of my life is surrounded by decision makers, community leaders and the citizens themselves. … I use my time and meals in particular to conduct business, discuss policy and seek solutions.
“I must be doing something right: I continue to maintain community support, continue to raise money, and continue to accomplish significant policy initiatives.”
Political scientist Mark Petracca, associate dean of UC Irvine’s School of Social Sciences, said Spitzer’s spending could prompt other committee campaigns.
“If this quote unquote works, my guess is you’ll see an explosion of these kinds of second committees, created precisely as a way of circumventing fundraising laws,” he said.
There’s a financial advantage in the path Spitzer has taken: While donors are restricted in what they can give to a supervisor race, those restrictions don’t apply to the Central Committee account. And anything Spitzer doesn’t spend from his supervisor campaign can legally be transferred to another campaign, such as a bid for district attorney.
Some political observers wonder why contributors would donate so much toward an office that involves minimal campaigning and for which little work is required other than attending a monthly meeting.
Central Committee Vice Chairman Mark Bucher has been an elected member for 20 years and said, “I’ve never raised a dime.”
“You just don’t see people raising a lot of money to try to get on Central Committee,” Bucher said. “They’re grass-roots seats, and people generally elect someone they know. They’re not like a Senate seat or an Assembly seat or even a city council seat.”
Bucher added: “I’m not talking about Orange County; I’m talking about anywhere in the state.”
That point was reinforced in a 2012 report from a state legislative analyst, which said, “It is relatively rare for candidates for county central committees to raise and spend more than a nominal amount of money for their campaigns.”
Critics also question why Orange County companies that have already donated all they legally can to Spitzer’s 2016 supervisor campaign have recently put thousands into his Central Committee account.
“It almost begins to sound like a way of laundering gifts,” Petracca said. “It’s almost impossible to believe that some other interest would care at all about who’s on the Central Committee, since the committee has authority over essentially nothing of direct public policy.”
Of his contributors, Spitzer wrote: “My supporters contribute to me in order for me to be successful. In politics, success is measured by accomplishment. Not in simply holding office.”
County central committees are strategy groups; Democrats and Republicans each have them. Their purpose is to advance political ideas and candidates through candidate endorsements, fundraising and donations.
The committee as a whole can fundraise and donate. So can people seeking election to the committees, which in Orange County have six spots for each of the county’s seven assembly districts. The elections, in which only registered party members can vote, were held during primary elections every two years until 2012, when they switched to every four years.
Spitzer makes $145,000 and gets a $9,180 car allowance annually as supervisor, and he reported more than $100,000 in annual income from his law firm last year, as well as between $10,001 and $100,000 from two other sources.
SPENDING STANDS OUT
He is the only politician in Orange County who’s ever spent more than $12,500 from a Central Committee account in a year, and he’s the only one who’s spent heavily during a nonelection year.
His spending – detailed in documents filed regularly at the Registrar of Voters’ Office – is more than that of all other committee members combined.
For the past two years, it’s also eclipsed his spending out of his supervisor 2016 campaign.
The campaigns are not subject to the $1,900 donation limits that restrict other campaigns, such as the one for Spitzer’s supervisor election, and a state law implemented in 2012 prohibits local jurisdictions from regulating them.
Candidates can legally raise and spend as much as they want.
“Maybe he’s starting a new trend,” said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and the original lawyer for the state Fair Political Practices Commission. “It’s a way to build up the party and a way also to build up their name. Somebody who’s ambitious will do that.”
In his email, Spitzer wrote: “My campaign accounts are always questioned around election time. … I certainly expect every campaign trick in the book to be lodged against me now that I am up for reelection in 2016.”
In an earlier email, Spitzer said, “the attorney general issued an opinion that monies between various campaign accounts can transfer because donors support the candidate, not the particular office.”
He also rejected Petracca’s claim that Central Committees do little that interests anyone. He pointed to heavy spending by the Los Angeles Democratic Central Committee on City Council and school board elections. That group, including its advocacy committee, has spent more than $500,000 this year, according to campaign documents, while the Orange County Republican Central Committee has spent about $55,000.
Stern said the only way Spitzer’s 2008 trip could be a legitimate Central Committee expense “is if there was a political or governmental purpose to the trip” that relates to his Central Committee role.
“Did the official meet with someone in Hawaii regarding fundraising or governmental issues?” he said.
Where Spitzer also could get into trouble, Stern said, is if he’s using committee money to pay for events tied solely to his supervisor seat. But if he’s being vague enough that only his name is used, not a position, he’ll probably be fine, Stern said.
“If he can argue it’s for his Central Committee campaign, then it’s going to be a lot harder to go after,” Stern said. “But if it says ‘vote for me for supervisor,’ then there could be a real problem.”
Spitzer emphasized in an email to the Register that he understands supervisor activities are off-limits for committee money and pointed to his use of a mailer in 2012 as an example.
In that case, Spitzer paid about $16,675 from his Central Committee account for a mailer that attacked his opponent for the Board of Supervisors, Deborah Pauly. But Pauly also was among 17 Republicans vying with Spitzer for six seats in the Central Committee’s 68th Assembly district.
The mailer said nothing of the supervisor election but urged voters to reject Pauly’s bid for Central Committee. None of Spitzer’s 16 other Central Committee opponents was mentioned, and he spent no Central Committee money to attack anyone else. He was the top vote-getter in his district that year for Central Committee.
Petracca said the Central Committee campaign against Pauly exemplifies the lack of regulation surrounding the committees.
“There’s no affirmative obligation on a part of a candidate or campaign to run against everybody that’s on the ballot. You do get to pick and choose, and if you can pick and choose in a way that also helps in another election, well, I suppose, all the better,” Petracca said.
But, he added, “the cleverness of this is only possible because there are so many cracks in the system we’ve set up.”
$8,000 AT STORES
The rest of Spitzer’s spending includes about $90,000 in donations to civic groups and $90,000 on political endeavors, including donations to other politicians and political causes.
When Spitzer announced in 2014 that he’d donated $25,000 to kickstart fundraising for the Orange County Crime Victims Memorial, the money came from his Central Committee campaign.
Other money has gone mostly to meetings and fundraisers at restaurants, including more than $2,300 for about 50 purchases at Peet’s Coffee, nearly $3,700 in Costco groceries and $16,000 on travel, including speaking events, conferences and a stay at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa in the Palm Desert in 2009.
He’s spent more than $8,000 at retail stores like Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, Staples and Frys and more than $12,000 at dozens of restaurants like BJs, Zov’s Bistro, Original Mike’s and Mother’s Market.
He’s spent more than $1,000 at cigar stores, including $370 at Maxamar Ultimate Cigar for a Young Republicans event, and in December 2011, he spent $300 for a meeting at the Coach House concert hall in San Juan Capistrano.
He also once spent more than $300 at two restaurants in one day, Dec. 10, 2009: $156.86 at Kitajima Sushi & Thai and $183.32 at the Office Sports Bar and Grill.
Each transaction has a note in the campaign finance documents indicating its general purpose, which include fundraising events, meetings and appearances, office expenses and information technology costs.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission, created in 1974 to enforce state election and campaign finance laws, requires he track the date of each meal, the number of people the money paid for and the “political, legislative, or governmental purpose of the expenditure.” Spitzer didn’t respond to requests to provide that information to the Register.
$235,000 TO ACCOUNT
When Spitzer opened the Central Committee account in early 2008, he used it in the same manner as the 10 other Orange County politicians who’ve had one: He transferred about $2,000 from his state Assembly campaign – he termed out of the Assembly that year – and spent it on voter guides and Republican-oriented campaign literature for his reelection to the Central Committee.
Four days after the election, he transferred nearly $235,000 into the account from the Assembly campaign. He put another $1 million in a district attorney campaign that’s since been transferred to his supervisor campaign.
In an email, Spitzer said: “I am not like every other officeholder; I was in the Legislature and returned to local office with a large campaign account that could not all be transferred” into the D.A.-turned-supervisor account.
Spitzer left for Maui the day after the $235,000 transfer. Documents show he spent about $8,800 on a six-day trip to Kahului, Hawaii, with his wife, Jamie. That included a stay at Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, which bills itself as “Hawaii’s only all-suite and villa luxury oceanfront resort.”
That began ramped-up spending, which totaled $337,234 as of June 30.
Most of the money is from the Assembly campaign and from cash accrued through interest and investments. He’s also raised about $45,000 from about 25 donors, more than half in the past 18 months.
The account was nearly empty when, on April 16, Spitzer hosted a fundraiser during an Anaheim Ducks hockey playoff game that specified donors were to give to his Central Committee campaign.
He’s raised nearly $15,000 since then, mostly from companies that have already donated $1,900 to his supervisor campaign.
That includes $5,000 from RJ Noble, a construction company that has contracts with the county; $5,000 from the Irvine Co.; $2,500 from CJ Segerstrom and Sons, which owns South Coast Plaza; and $1,000 from the Walt Disney Co.
Other donors to both his committee and supervisor campaigns include Christopher Townsend, of the public affairs firm Townsend Associates; Global Tel Link Corp., which contracts with the county to provide phone service in the jails; and recycling company Tierra Verde Industries.
None of the donors would talk to the Register. But a review of campaign finance filings in Orange County shows none has ever donated so much to a Central Committee campaign.
The 10 Orange County politicians who’ve ever raised or spent enough money to open a campaign account have spent mostly their own money or small donations, most less than $500.
Mary Young, a committee member from Aliso Viejo, spent about $12,000 in 2012, mostly on promotional material and postage, consultants and groceries for fundraisers.
Committee member Thomas “TJ” Fuentes in Newport Beach raised about $20,000 in 2011 and 2012, spending about $11,000; then raised about $4,500 in 2013 and 2014 and spent about $7,000.
IRVINE CO. DONATES
The next biggest spender, Lake Forest City Councilman Scott Voigts, reported about $6,400 in expenditures in 2012. More than half the money came from his City Council campaign, but he also raised about $3,000, including $250 from the Irvine Co.
The company, which is Orange County’s largest landowner, doesn’t appear to have donated to a Central Committee campaign before Voigts’s. And it hadn’t donated anything since, until late last year, when the company made two $2,500 donations to Spitzer’s Central Committee campaign.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said anyone who’s raising money through a Central Committee is only doing so to avoid Orange County’s campaign finance restrictions.
“Is it an ethical approach to what people understand is a fundraising cap? No,” said Nelson, who chaired the Board of Supervisors last year and was elected to the Central Committee in 2012.
Nelson has never raised or spent more than $1,000 on a Central Committee election, nor has any other supervisor.
“There’s no reason to spend any money, let alone a lot of money,” Nelson said. “You’d have to stretch the imagination so far it would hurt.”
William “Bill” Mitchell, a lawyer who is working with Spitzer to establish a commission that will investigate ethics violations by local politicians, said questioning whether donors gave to Spitzer’s Central Committee account only to avoid Orange County’s campaign donation limitations is “a legitimate concern.”
But Mitchell defended one of the donors: himself. Mitchell gave $1,000 to Spitzer’s supervisor campaign in 2013, then another $1,000 to his committee campaign last year.
Mitchell said he wanted to support Spitzer against attacks from other Republicans.
“Todd has a long history, unlike most politicians in the county, of supporting good-government initiatives. And I want to reward those leaders who support good-government initiatives,” Mitchell said.
Staff writer Martin Wisckol contributed to this story.
Contact the writer: email@example.com On Twitter: @meghanncuniff