Weeks before Election Day, incumbent Palo Alto City Council candidate Liz Kniss pivoted from her campaign's earlier policy when she decided to accept cash from more than a dozen builders, developers and property managers contributions that weren't disclosed until earlier this month.
At least one of those checks exceeded $1,000 and was made prior to Nov. 8, which means, under the Political Reform Act, it should have been disclosed to the public within 24 hours. The reason it was not logged until after Nov. 18, according to Kniss' campaign, is because treasurer Tom Collins had surgery in early November.
The Weekly learned last week that several of the 31 donors who were listed on Kniss' Jan. 11 campaign filing actually made their contributions in the weeks before the Nov. 8 election. The late contributions totaled $19,340, and the list of developers and property managers includes among others Charles Keenan, Jim Baer, Premier Properties and employees of Keenan Land Company.
The California Association of Realtors indicated in its own filing that it made a $2,500 contribution on Oct. 18. It's unclear whether the other donations of more than $1,000 from the Thoits Brothers, Hatco Associates LLC (which is affiliated with Thoits), Palo Alto Improvement Company (also affiliated with Thoits) and Joseph Martignetti Jr. were sent in before Election Day.
In response to the Weekly's questions about the contributions, Kniss' campaign sought an opinion from the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which administers the Political Reform Act, as to whether it violated the law. Last week, Collins called the FPPC advice hotline and then documented his inquiry in an email to the advice staff.
"I told her (the FPPC advice hotline employee) that after Oct. 22 deadline for reporting, I did not open any mail until Nov. 15," Collins wrote in the email.
"I was doing reports for two campaigns during the next week and then had to go to Stanford Hospital for surgery and rehab at Webster House for the next 10 days," Collins wrote. "Once at home, I began posting contributions.
"The contribution in question, $2,500, was not shown on a Form 497 because it was not opened, posted or deposited until Nov. 18 well after the election date of Nov. 8."
But while Collins said he didn't open any mail between Oct. 22 and Nov. 15, the campaign's January filing shows several smaller contributions that were received and logged during that gap. These include $50 from from attorney Hal Mickelson; $250 from Martha Kanter, former U.S. undersecretary of education; $750 from retired developer William Reller and $250 from entrepreneur Josh Becker. All were received by the campaign between Oct. 26 and Oct. 30, according to the filing.
In response, the FPPC advice hotline staff wrote in an email to Collins that because he, as treasurer, "had not opened the ($2,500) contribution, the contribution is not considered 'received.'"
Kniss has not said when the California Association of Realtors' California Real Estate Political Action Committee (CREPAC) check was delivered to her campaign, but she noted in an email that the group also had not notified her the check had been mailed.
The issue of large contributions calls into question the FPPC advice line's interpretation of "date received." While the law says nothing about the date when the envelope is actually opened, the advice line response implies that an envelope could be delivered but left unopened until after the election and thus the contribution would not be reported.
FPPC regulations define "date received" as the date that "the candidate or committee, or the agent of the candidate or committee, obtains possession or control of the check or other negotiable instrument by which the contribution is made."
In an interview with the Weekly last week, Kniss maintained that the campaign has been "totally straight-forward" about the contributions from developers.
"We didn't hide anything," she said.
Jay Wierenga, the FPPC's communications director, told the Weekly that the advice email cited by Kniss is different from the types of determinations made by the agency's Enforcement Division.
"We offer advice based on the information given to us," Wierenga said in an email. "The only finder of fact within the FPPC is the Enforcement Division, which investigates complaints and/or any potential violation of the Act on which it becomes aware of information of a potential violation or receives a complaint with enough evidence to indicate a potential violation."
Kniss last week also initially said that she had decided to accept developers' checks only after the election, when her campaign was about $20,000 in debt. After the Weekly told her that several developers had indicated that they had given her money before the election, she said she didn't know when the checks were issued.
Besides raising the question of when contributions were received, the January filing didn't disclose the occupation of any of the developers who had contributed to the campaign. For all but three contributions reportedly received on Nov. 18 or later, the contributor's occupation is listed as "unknown." (Baer, who is one of the exceptions, is listed on the form as a "VC Consultant").
Kniss' decision to accept the developer cash was a departure from her earlier campaign policy. In August, developer Boyd Smith contributed $1,000 to her campaign. According to her campaign disclosures, Kniss returned the check two weeks later.
Kniss told the Weekly that she decided to start accepting contributions from developers, builders and property managers after seeing a large infusion of cash into the campaigns of two of her political opponents. Candidates Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller each raised more than $90,000 for their respective campaigns, with about $73,000 coming in from five local families in late October.
Kniss also told the Weekly that she had initially hesitated in accepting contributions because of negative perceptions from the community, including insinuations that members who accept these funds are "in the developer's pocket." Kniss pointed to her personal record as proof that developers do not get special attention.
Since re-joining the council in 2012, Kniss has had a moderate record when it comes to growth. She joined 5-4 majorities in approving a block-long development on El Camino Real (former site of the Olive Garden) last year and in giving the green light to a three-story mixed-use building at 441 Page Mill Road in 2015. But she also supported the adoption of an annual office cap and voted with the rest of her colleagues to demand revisions to a proposed mixed-use building at 429 University Ave.
In an interview last week, Kniss described herself as "pro-prosperity."
"I don't want to see us languish as a city," Kniss said. "But have I given any particular developer special consideration? Certainly not."