As the race for district attorney has intensified, candidate Tim Covello has gained momentum in fundraising, narrowing the gap between himself and opponent Dan Dow, according to the latest financial disclosures filed with the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office.
Covello raised slightly more money than Dow from March 18 through May 17, bringing in just over $66,700 compared to Dow’s roughly $63,200.
Since campaigning began, Dow has raised roughly $166,000 compared to Covello’s $124,000. Write-in candidate Paul Phillips did not report any contributions.
Covello, the assistant district attorney; Dow, a deputy district attorney; and Phillips, a private attorney, are seeking to replace Gerry Shea, who is not seeking re-election after more than 15 years.
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Covello’s biggest contributors this calendar year include his father, Joseph, who donated $9,995; Brent Dill, CEO of Big Sale Group in San Luis Obispo ($9,500); attorney Ray Mattison and his wife, Coleen ($5,100 combined); San Luis Obispo hedge fund firm Stalfund Management ($5,000); and physician Chris Hulburd ($3,500).
Dow’s largest contributors include Arroyo Grande attorney Jim Murphy ($23,500); Greengate Ranch, a horse ranch in Arroyo Grande ($6,500); a cousin, Dean Dow ($5,000); and builders Castlerock Development from San Luis Obispo ($2,625).
During the campaign, Covello has made an issue of Dow’s biggest contributions — from Murphy — saying the money represented a conflict of interest. Dow was prosecuting one of Murphy’s clients in a statutory rape case when he accepted two separate contributions of $2,500.
Dow said it wasn’t illegal or unethical to take the money, and he recused himself from the case when the contributions accumulated.
Covello said he should have declined the money and kept the case.
“He abandoned the victims and the case so he could get more money,” Covello said.
Murphy said that since the controversy arose, he has given substantially more money to Dow’s campaign — with a total of $23,500 — because Covello has made the donations an issue in his ads.
“I think it is grossly unfair that he goes on the airwaves castigating and smearing Dan Dow,” Murphy said. “So I just stepped it up a little bit more.”
Murphy said he supports Dow because he’s a tough and fair prosecutor.
When Covello criticized Dow during a debate on KCBX radio this week for taking money from Murphy, Dow countered by charging that Covello also took money from a defense attorney.
The defense attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, purchased two $60 tickets for a Covello cigar fundraiser after being invited to the event by a Covello supporter.
“Any excuse to smoke cigars, I’m usually there,” Funke-Bilu said Friday.
Both Funke-Bilu and Covello told The Tribune that Covello never solicited money from Funke-Bilu. Funke-Bilu said he also donated $120 to Dow’s campaign.
“I didn’t want to appear that I favored one or the other,” he said.
While the money from the Covello fundraiser was recorded, Funke-Bilu’s name was not reported in the disclosure statements.
The names of donors who contribute less than $100 do not have to be reported, although the amount must be.
Covello’s campaign treasurer, Gere Sibbach, said Friday that when someone buys a ticket to a fundraiser, the buyer’s name and occupation, along with the cost of the ticket is recorded. If future donations raise their total contribution above $100 the name is reported on financial disclosure forms.
Funke-Bilu’s two tickets were counted as separate purchases, Sibbach said, one from the attorney and one from his wife.
But Dow thinks Funke-Bilu’s tickets should have been reported since they totaled more than $120.
Dow said he records all names from fundraisers and requires they pay with checks or credit cards.
“I certainly never tried to hide that I got money from Mr. Murphy,” Dow said.
Both candidates have received money from numerous attorneys. The attorneys on Covello’s list of donors are civil lawyers and local judges. Dow’s include both civil and criminal attorneys.
Covello said he didn’t make an issue of Dow receiving contributions from defense attorneys until he learned that Dow had accepted money as the Murphy case was pending.
“Context is everything,” Covello said. “(Dow’s) trying to put up a smokescreen about nonissues.”
But as a supervisor, Murphy said, Covello would have oversight over cases in which Funke-Bilu is a courtroom opponent — something that would happen often.
“Ilan Funke-Bilu is the No. 1 defense lawyer in San Luis Obispo County,” he said.