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San Marcos school trustees face campaign finance investigations
San Marcos Unified School District office. Photo via Facebook
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San Marcos school board trustees face campaign finance investigations

SAN MARCOS — Two San Marcos Unified School District board members face investigations for allegedly failing to report sizable campaign contributions from a local teachers’ union during the 2020 election season.

Sarah Ahmad and Jaime Chamberlain won seats on the school district’s board of trustees last November.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, or FPPC, which administers state campaign finance law, opened investigations into both officials, following complaints filed in November and February.

“The candidates participated in the decision making, content and distribution of campaign materials paid for by the San Marcos Teachers for Quality Education,” a union-affiliated political action committee, or PAC, complainant David Schneider wrote to the FPPC. That constitutes “coordination,” he said, in which case the candidates’ should’ve reported the PAC’s spending as contributions to their campaigns, which they didn’t.

The PAC made “independent expenditures” of more than $15,000 supporting Chamberlin and more than $13,000 supporting Ahmad during 2020, according to The Coast News’ compilation of filings.

Complaints to the Fair Political Practices Commission allege “coordination” and improper reporting of campaign spending. Photo contributed by David Schneider

A PAC may spend money favoring or opposing a candidate, independent of a campaign, without the candidate necessarily becoming liable to report it. For example, a PAC might endorse a candidate or oppose a candidate’s rival in a mass mailer, without the candidate’s permission or knowledge. Such spending is commonplace.

But if the candidate participates, the expenditure no longer counts as independent, and the candidate must report it. For example, a candidate becomes liable if he or she discusses “the content, timing, location, mode, intended audience, distribution, or placement of [a PAC’s campaign-related] communication,” according to an FPPC disclosure manual.

“Facebook campaign statements made by the candidates on their respective election webpages” indicate such participation, Schneider wrote in his complaint. For instance, he pointed to a Facebook post in which “Elect Jaime Chamberlin” said: “When designing this [mailer], I wanted to succinctly and directly address the important changes that I will bring ….”

The Sept. 22 post referenced doesn’t explicitly say the teachers’ PAC paid for the communication. Though the PAC’s filings show expenditures totaling about $3,300 before that date for mailers supporting Chamberlin, while the county registrar’s database doesn’t have any filings from Chamberlin at all.

Ahmad filed several disclosures, showing payments to Facebook and a printing company, as well as cash contributions from individuals, but none from the teachers’ PAC.

FPPC’s opening of an investigation does not indicate or imply a finding of guilt, but only that sufficient evidence warranted looking into the matter more deeply. Cases with guilty findings may result in fines up to $5,000 per violation or administrative warning letters.

The FPPC “found no evidence of intent to conceal” on the part of the San Marcos Teachers for Quality Education, the PAC told The Coast News in a statement. The PAC paid a $661 fine for filing late, but “is appealing the fine on the grounds that the inability to file the form on time was due to an error with the county filing website, and not within our control.”

Ahmad and Chamberlain didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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