OAKLAND -- The political committee that raises money for and endorses Democratic candidates throughout Alameda County is under investigation after one of its own members questioned the group's campaign finance reporting practices.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission says it initiated the probe of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, but several committee members said they suspect the investigation stems from concerns raised by committee member Margarita Lacabe.
Lacabe, a 45-year-old peace activist, said she never filed a complaint with the state commission. But she did get a call in December from state investigators who had read a comment she posted a year earlier in a local political blog, accusing the central committee of hiding the true identities of interest groups that paid for political mail sent to voters by the committee.
The state would not disclose details of its investigation. Depending on the findings, the 35-member county committee could face a civil fine and hefty legal bills as it gears up to raise money for the 2014 election cycle.
A review by this paper of the committee's 2012 campaign statements found that it failed to specify the names of candidates and ballot measures it financed as required under state law.
Committee Chairwoman Robin Torello declined to comment about the investigation other than to confirm the group has retained a lawyer.
Other members lashed out at Lacabe, a San Leandro resident, who they depicted as an argumentative firebrand with no allies on the committee.
"There are some people who are poisonous and she is one of those persons," said one committee member was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Another committee member last month proposed censuring Lacabe, but no action was taken against her.
Lacabe said she was being retaliated against and the committee needed to focus on its own issues rather than her.
"As Democrats we need to push for transparency," she said. "We shouldn't be in a position that anything we do is legally questionable."
Central committees are composed of elected officials and party members selected by voters. Their primary purpose is to endorse candidates, raise campaign funds, register voters and turn out the vote.
Because spending caps for contributions to party central committees are much higher than for individual candidates, state regulators "take an extra hard look at them to see if they are being used to launder money from big donors to candidates," said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies.
Political campaign committees are required to document the names of candidates and initiatives they help fund, Stern said. In prior election cycles, Democratic Party committees in Santa Clara and San Francisco counties both filled out copious reports spelling out the exact amount they gave to candidates.
The Alameda County committee, on the other hand, provided no such information. Instead it only listed thousands of dollars paid to printing and mailing firms without any explanation of which candidates were benefiting from any political mailers.
"It is an incomplete disclosure to just say you gave money to a printer," Stern said. "You have to report what the money was spent on."
Stern said such improper filings might not be considered a major violation by the state, unless it was masking large donations to specific candidates.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435