“San Jose City Councilman-elect Manh Nguyen wants a written apology from City Hall. The incoming District 4 councilman wants the City Clerk’s Office to admit — in writing — that it screwed up. He claims the office gave him bad advice about filing his election finance reports, which led to him filing 99 late campaign contribution forms (for donations totaling $271,386) and failing to report an additional $11,634 in contributions.” (San Jose Mercury News, 7/23/15).
Unfortunately, this story is not unusual. It highlights the importance of campaign counsel to navigate the often complex reporting requirements of local campaign ordinances. In jurisdictions with very low contribution limits, however, candidates struggle to raise enough funds to afford to hire campaign counsel, and try to get by relying on advice from the local officials. If that local official gives erroneous advice, it is the campaign that is held responsible for the violation of the law, and the same jurisdiction can then impose a fine for the erroneous advice it gave in the first place.
Campaigns in jurisdictions like this one should weigh the cost of campaign counsel against the cost of paying fines from the local jurisdiction and/or the Fair Political Practices Commission, along with the political consequences the violation can cause. In the long run, hiring counsel can turn out to be the less expensive option. Consider it an insurance policy to prevent these types of mistakes from happening in the first place.
Don’t assume campaign counsel or a professional treasurer is out of your campaign’s budget. Many campaign attorneys are willing to work within a campaign’s budget, so you can ensure the compliance and the viability of your candidacy. It is much more cost effective to hire campaign counsel before your committee gets in hot water.