|State Looks Into
Union's Political Gifts
December 19, 1997
State investigators have begun a review into whether a politically powerful firefighters union in Contra Costa County illegally misrepresented the source of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
A spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission said yesterday that the agency's enforcement division was looking at revelations published yesterday in The Chronicle about the Richmond firefighters union.
``Every violation of the political reform act is taken seriously,'' said Gary Huckaby, FPPC spokesman, who would not comment directly about the case involving Local 188 of the International Association of Firefighters.
Darrell Reese, a consultant and former president of the union, said its political action committee listed 93 current and 94 retired firefighters this year as donating $157.42 apiece -- even though none of the retirees actually gave money.
The money came from dues- paying firefighters and proceeds of a circus, Reese said. He said that by listing the retirees, the PAC had been trying to get around state Proposition 208, which would limit union members to a $250 annual donation. He said he believed the plan to be legal.
Reese, a 60-year-old retired fire captain, is known as an influential lobbyist in Richmond. The union has used its money over the past decade to fund City Council and school board campaigns in west Contra Costa County, and in 1992 spent $25,000 to try to defeat Gayle Bishop in a supervisor district in central Contra Costa.
After The Chronicle story was published yesterday, Reese mailed amended campaign disclosure statements to the FPPC claiming that the 1997 contributions had actually come from working firefighters and a Bentley Brothers Circus fund-raiser. Each firefighter, Reese said, gave the Proposition 208 a maximum of $250, for a total of $23,000.
But Reese's latest explanation may raise further questions.
Reese said the union PAC had received about $16,000 this year from the circus, which was held in May. He said that overall, the circus raised ``around $20,000'' for the union.
But union president Henry Hornsby described the division of circus proceeds differently.
``Most of that money goes right back to the community except for the little bit of money that goes to the PAC,'' Hornsby said.
Hornsby would not say how much the circus provided to the union. He was adamant that most of the money was used for charity.
``All the money, I give away to neighborhood groups, youth group organizations, nonprofit organizations, churches -- except what goes to the PAC. We probably give away six or seven grand to the community.''
Records filed by the Miami- based circus fund-raiser with Attorney General Dan Lungren's office show that the circus gave $10,670 to the union in 1996.
Reese said he was not aware that the circus fund-raiser, M. Charles Productions Inc., had disclosed that information to the state. He said he was surprised the amount was so low.
``I thought it was more than that,'' Reese said.
He said he had thought the circus raised about the same amount in 1996 as it did this year.
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, a critic of Reese and the union, said he had filed a complaint with the FPPC calling for an investigation into where the union got its money.
``These people are not naive first-timers that simply made innocent mistakes,'' Butt wrote. ``They are experienced and professional political operatives with a long history of operating on the edge of and beyond the law.''
Councilwoman Donna Powers said she believes that Reese is still in violation of campaign disclosure laws. She said she believes the money given to the union from the circus should count as a donation and be required to meet the same $250 limit set under Proposition 208 as other contributions.
``What Darrell is saying is still a crock of baloney,'' she said.
Reese said he believes that the circus money is not covered by the $250 individual contributor limit because thousands of people purchased tickets -- none of which cost more than $100, the threshold amount that must be reported.
FPPC spokesman Huckaby said that ultimately bank records will answer any questions about how any PAC is financed and what is or is not legal.
He said that if the FPPC opens a formal investigation, the public is not informed until the probe is completed. Investigations by the FPPC can last anywhere from months to more than a year and can result in fines to offending parties, he said.