In the final days before Tuesday’s election, a new political independent expenditure committee has formed to disseminate broadsides against Mark Leno and Jane Kim’s bids to be elected mayor of San Francisco.
These ads are circulating around the four corners of the Internet despite two notable problems: They’re not accurate and, in fact, may violate both state and city regulations.
Over the weekend, sponsored ads appeared on social media from a group called “San Francisco Workforce Housing Alliance.” The ads claim that Leno and Kim have accepted “tens of thousands of dollars” from Veritas Investments — the city’s largest landlord, which is becoming the face of rent-gouging and evictions.
The ads provocatively claim Leno and Kim take “eviction money” from Veritas and quote the Tenants Union describing Veritas as “responsible for scores of evictions, tenant harassment and excessive cost passthroughs.”
That may well be, but there is no evidence that Veritas or its CEO and founder Yat-Pang Au have contributed to either the Kim or Leno campaigns. (Veritas Investments did, in 2015, contribute $4,200 to Kim’s run for state senate.)
“It’s absolutely disgusting and misleading in every way,” said Deepa Varma, the executive director of the Tenants Union.
“It’s a fake group that seems to be copying the name of our partner, the Affordable Housing Alliance,” she continued. Both the Tenants Union and Affordable Housing Alliance have endorsed Leno and Kim. “They are claiming that we are saying that opposite of what we’re saying.”
The ads were paid for by the “San Francisco Workforce Housing Alliance, Opposing Jane Kim and Mark Leno for Mayor 2018,” an independent expenditure committee that was created Friday, June 1. The only reported contributor to the Workforce Housing Alliance committee is the Safe & Affordable San Francisco committee — a state PAC which received a $50,000 contribution from San Francisco Apartment Association PAC.
Safe and Affordable San Francisco has already funneled scores of thousands of dollars into local PACs to fund anti-Kim and anti-Leno ads. Due to a quirk in campaign law, it won’t have to reveal its donors until July — well after tomorrow’s election.
That the backer of these ads resembles a housing rights group — and not a PAC formed to specifically defeat Kim and Leno — may constitute a violation of the state’s rules around political advertisements.
San Francisco requires political committees to be transparent in their ads, which means including a disclaimer statement that lists the name of the PAC that sponsored the ad and the top three donors that contributed more than $50,000.
For ads appearing on Facebook and other digital platforms, disclaimers “must be in the same font size as majority of text and displayed conspicuously near the ad.”
The ads against Leno and Kim that appeared on Instagram did not adhere to those rules. Notably, the sponsored ad on Instagram truncates the group’s name from “San Francisco Workforce Housing Alliance, Opposing Jane Kim and Mark Leno” to the more anodyne “San Francisco Workforce Housing Alliance.”
“It looks to me that it is a classic violation and they are trying to game the system by doing it so late that there will be no enforcement,” said good-government activist Larry Bush. The city’s Ethics Commission declined to comment.
“What’s especially gross,” adds Varma, “is they are co-opting an organizing campaign around Veritas and [its subsidiary] Greentree.”
Last month, Supervisor Jeff Sheehy held a hearing in which Veritas tenants presented grievances with their corporate landlord and asked the city attorney to open an investigation into its practices. Following the hearing, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban operational and maintenance passthroughs, which allow landlords to exceed annual rent increases by passing on portions of their property tax bills and debt service to tenants.
Following that hearing, Veritas contributed $10,000 to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which has endorsed Sheehy’s opponent for District 8 Supervisor, Rafael Mandelman. The DCCC also endorsed Leno and Kim for mayor, which appears to be the source of the ads’ claims.
Calls to the treasurer of the Workforce Housing Alliance PAC have not been returned.
Update, June 5: Facebook’s publicly available analytics reveal this ad, which cost between $1,000 and $5,000, received up to 200,000 impressions.