The "Friends of Gary Griffith"
Who, or better yet what, are (or were) the "Friends of Gary Griffith" and what did they do with "the money?"
Because, until today when Dallas mayoral candidate Gary Griffith changed his website (likely in response to a letter from Dallas.Org ) all of Griffith's letters, yardsigns and other advertising attributed its source to the "Friends of Gary Griffith."
Griffith's original home page can be viewed here .
So what's wrong with this?
"Friends of Gary Griffith" doesn't exist, at least not in a manner that would seem to comply with State Election Laws.
According to Texas Ethics Commission lawyer Tim Sorrells, "advertising must reflect where the money's coming from or who's getting the money," explained Sorrells.
In order for the "Friends of Gary Griffith" to collect money, they must be registered as a Specific-Purpose Action Committee or "S-PAC". This requires filing paperwork with the City Secretary's office.
As an example, Sorrells pointed us to a flyer on the Ethics Commission's website regarding political advertising, and directed us to one particular quote:
The advertising should not be attributed to entities such as "Committee to Elect John Doe" unless a specific-purpose committee named "Committee to Elect John Doe" has filed a campaign treasurer appointment with the Ethics Commission or a local filing authority.
So according to the Texas Election Code , before an "S-PAC" can begin collecting or spending money, it must file a treasurer's report.
If it does not, the "S-PAC," or more accurately the treasurer of the "S-PAC" can be liable for 3 times the amount of money collected or spent.
In addition to that, there's a wild-card in this election, that hasn't been present in previous elections, but we're going to save talking about that for last! So read on!
The "Friends of Gary Griffith" began advertising as early as April, 2006 according to a copy of the earliest letter we were able to locate.
Gary Griffith's July, 2006 campaign finance report shows that Griffith began making payments to web development firm Corporate Citizen's Group in April, 2006 as well.
According to the report, Griffith spent $5,384 with Corporate Citizen's Group between April 19 and June 29, 2006.
Griffith's January, 2007 report shows another $3,879.19 paid to Corporate Citizen's Group for website work.
Corporate Citizen's Group is the group listed, on the footer of Griffith's website, as the developer of garygriffith.com--the same site that, until today, bore the disclaimer "Paid for by Friends of Gary Griffith" (view the page as it existed on April 2 here).
According to Griffith's campaign finance reports he and the "Friends of Gary Griffith" share the same address: "P.O. Box 190179-444, Dallas TX 75219".
Fundraisers, Advertising and Pledge Cards
"Friends of Gary Griffith" held numerous fundraisers for Griffith including one sponsored by former Dallas Republican Party Chairman Nate Crain.
Another letter advertises a "Bowling For Gary " party and fundraiser for Griffith to be held on April 10, 2007. The letter solicits funds for the "Friends of Gary Griffith."
The group began placing yard signs, and distributing pledge cards (view a pledge card here) all urging that checks be made payable to the "Friends of Gary Griffith."
Griffith's web page, until today, requested online contributions be made to the "Friends of Gary Griffith" (view the previous contribution page here ).
All of Griffith's yard signs displayed the following disclaimer:
But what if the disclaimer is wrong?
The Political Advertising Flyer from the Texas Ethics Commission answers the question regarding what a candidate must do when he or she discovers their required political advertising is missing or wrong. According to the Commission:
"If you learn that a political advertising sign designed to be seen from the road does not contain a disclosure statement or contains an inaccurate disclosure statement, you should make a good faith attempt to remove or correct those signs that have been distributed. You are not required to attempt to recover other types of political advertising that have been distributed with a missing or inaccurate disclosure statement."
So we'll be keeping an eye out for those replacement yard signs, and future advertising.
The Wild Card
Remember that wild card we promised?
How much money has the "Friends of Gary Griffith" raised, and where did the money go?
According to the City of Dallas, there were no required S-PAC campaign filings for "Friends of Gary Griffith" at the City of Dallas as late as last week. So what about money collected by an "S-PAC" that doesn't seem to exist?
The website change from "Paid for by Friends of Gary Griffith" to "Paid for by Gary Griffith" may indicate that the money solicited by "Friends of Gary Griffith" went directly into the Griffith campaign.
An attorney, familiar with Texas Election Laws, pointed us to the definition of a Direct Campaign Expenditure in the Texas Election Code, then to this section which talks about Unlawful Direct Campaign Expenditures and Unlawfully Making and Accepting Contributions.
Both sections say that "an offense under [each] section is a Class A misdemeanor."
Did any of this cross the line?
According to the opinions and orders on the Texas Ethics Commission's website, and past experience, the Commission has been fairly lenient when a candidate makes a good-faith effort to replace inaccurate yard signs, and correct false advertising.
However, an unregistered "S-PAC" possibly collecting funds directly for a candidate, we're told, may well be new territory for the Commission.
But the Commission, according to the attorney, has never subpoenaed a document or a witness; nor has it referred any matter for criminal prosecution. It has relied totally on sworn responses from candidates or officeholders in making its decisions--and its punishments are usually limited to civil penalties (sometimes none at all).
But the wild card here is Dallas County's newly-elected District Attorney Craig Watkins.
Will Watkins, unlike his predecessor, decide to investigate the behavior of candidates, officeholders, PACs and S-PACs he suspects may have broken the law?
Watkins, according to the attorney we spoke with, (and others like Travis County Attorney Ronnie Earle have demonstrated) doesn't need the Texas Ethics Commission's permission to investigate the matter himself.
So how the "Friends of Gary Griffith" situation plays out is anyone's guess. Was it a "fast one" or just a big mistake?
One thing is for certain: the next stop for the whole affair will be the Texas Ethics Commission!
[Note: The Griffith Campaign never responded to our request for an explanation or clarification. If they do, we'll post their response here.]