A Sacramento-based group that represents taxpayer interests is suing California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in order to stop his office from carrying out a $35 million voter outreach contract the group says unfairly targets certain voters.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed the suit in Sacramento on Friday alleging that Padilla violated the law in executing the contract for a voter outreach campaign. The contract for the campaign, dubbed “Vote Safe California” went to the political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker.
The firm, which touts itself as on “Team Biden,” has a history of working with powerful Democrats in state and national races. Anita Dunn, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, worked in the Obama White House was named a top adviser to the Biden campaign in February.
In SKDKnickerbocker’s proposal for the project, the firm said it would “take a close look at historical turnout and devote more resources to education and (get-out-the-vote) in lower-performing counties such as Imperial County or those in the Central Valley.”
The scope of work from the Secretary of State’s Office said the campaign team “must include a (get-out-the-vote) targeting expert.”
In its suit, the taxpayer association claims such a targeted effort could unfairly affect the result of the elections.
“By focusing (i.e. ‘targeting’) the voter outreach, the political consulting firm can and will necessarily affect voter turnout of certain types of voters more than others and in some parts of the state more than others,” the suit said. “This can and will affect the outcomes of elections — indeed that is what targeted GOTV is intended to achieve.”
The suit specifically mentions Proposition 15, a measure that seeks to change commercial property tax law.
Padilla’s office says the campaign is intended to educate voters about changes to the November elections and is required under Senate Bill 423. The ads for the campaign began airing last month on televisions across the state, telling voters how to track their mail ballots and ensuring them that they are “simple, safe” and “secure.”
The group alleges that Padilla’s office awarded the contract in secret and is continuing the campaign without proper authority to spend the money. The group previously sent a letter to Padilla demanding he stop payment on the contract, and are now asking a judge to issue an injunction to prevent the office from spending any more money on the contract.
While the suit names Padilla in his official capacity as secretary of state, attorneys for the plaintiff say he could be personally liable if he’s found to have spent taxpayer dollars without “due care.”
In September, The Sacramento Bee first reported the awarding of the contract to SKDKnickerbocker.
Both the firm and Padilla’s office contend the voter outreach campaign is non-partisan, and those working on it have no direct connections to politicians.
The suit alleges that SKDKnickerbocker and six other “partisan firms” were specially selected to submit proposals for the project, and that a bid opportunity was not made public, as is typical of government contracts. Furthermore, the the suit claims, nonpartisan advertising agencies were turned away from submitting proposals for the project.
“In fact, some of those advertising agencies became aware of the proposed contract and inquired of the (Secretary of State) for an opportunity to bid, but they were informed that it was a ‘closed — invitation only,’ bid,” the suit said.
The Secretary of State’s office has told The Bee the contract was awarded through a lawful emergency bid practice due to the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic and the time-sensitive nature of the election.
The lawsuit also asks the court to halt the campaign on the grounds that the Secretary of State does not have the authority to spend the local assistance funds it lays claim to.
Padilla’s office originally said it would use local assistance funds allocated in the state budget to pay for the campaign. But earlier this week, the State Controller’s Office, which acts as the chief financial officer for California, confirmed to The Bee that the Secretary of State was not authorized to spend those funds, and the Controller would not approve claims for the SKDKnickerbocker contract.
“The (Secretary of State) is committing taxpayer resources that he does not have under a contract that has not been approved and will never be approved because there is no lawful appropriation to pay for the contracted services and it does not comply with the Public Contract Code,” the suit alleges.
Paula Valle, director of communications for the Secretary of State, said Friday the office cannot comment on pending litigation but added that they are committed to meeting the state’s mandate to provide a quality, nonpartisan voter education campaign during an unprecedented election.
“The voter education contract is in place and the voter education campaign has commenced. Meanwhile, we continue to work with the State Controller’s office, the Department of Finance, and others to determine the best method for payment for this voter education campaign,” Valle said.
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