SLO County DA candidate accused of campaign finance errors, calls complaint a 'hit piece'

"We've done the best we can to disclose everything," Judge Mike Cummins said. "If there are any errors, they're technical errors."
"We've done the best we can to disclose everything," Judge Mike Cummins said. "If there are any errors, they're technical errors." jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

As pretty much everyone predicted, the race for San Luis Obispo County District Attorney has turned ugly — just as registered voters begin receiving their mail-in ballots.

Following the release of the first round of campaign disclosures late last month — and two days before the race's first televised debate — a political activist filed a campaign fundraising complaint with the state against Judge Mike Cummins, who is challenging Dan Dow in the June 5 Primary Election.

Dow is running for a second term as the county's top prosecutor.

On Monday, San Luis Obispo activist and Dow supporter Kevin Rice filed a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that Cummins has committed at least 54 violations of state campaign finance laws. The allegations range from serious violations including the alleged failure to properly disclose more than $130,000 in vendor payments, to a variety of very minor violations from things like not listing the occupation of individual donors or misstating a local organization's name.

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While both men have raised solid amounts for their campaign committees since the beginning of the year, Dow has nearly five times as much cash on hand as his opponent, with more than $100,000 vs. less than $22,000 for Cummins.

Jay Wierenga, communications director for the Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates campaign financing, confirmed Tuesday that the agency received the complaint.

But it's unlikely the results will be in before the election. Though he couldn't comment further on Rice's complaint, Wierenga explained that an initial review process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. If the commission finds there's probable cause, it will formally launch an investigation.

A majority of those investigations are completed within 180 days, but some take more than a year to complete, Wierenga said.

On Tuesday, Cummins said he's "disappointed but not surprised" that "Dow surrogate" Rice would target his financials. Though he said he had no reason to believe he misreported anything, Cummins admitted that neither he nor his wife, who is the campaign's treasurer, have much experience with election financial reporting.

"We've done the best we can to disclose everything," Cummins said. "If there are any errors, they're technical errors."

Dan Dow019
District Attorney Dan Dow Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com


While each DA candidates' fundraising has cracked the six-figure mark, the race has attracted slightly fewer campaign dollars than other expensive local county level races such as the campaigns for the District 4 Board of Supervisors seat and county sheriff.

In the reporting period from Jan. 1 through April 21, Dow raised about $142,742 and spent about $63,375, according to his latest statement. He began the year with about $27,908, a figure that includes roughly $13,900 in loans carried over from his first run. As of April 21, Dow's campaign reported $100,017 cash on hand.

Cummins has raised roughly $164,286 since the beginning of the year, according to his latest statement, and spent about $142,468. However, the bulk of Cummins' campaign funds come from a series of loans to himself totaling $135,000. He reported ending the period on April 21 with $21,867 cash on hand.

Beyond his loan and a $25,000 contribution from the parents of Andrew Holland — the mentally ill Atascadero resident who died in the County Jail in January 2017 — Cummins received campaign contributions from 15 individuals, as well as from the South San Luis Obispo County Democrats. Four of his donors reside outside the county.

Dow, on the other hand, has taken in donations from roughly 200 individuals as of April 21; 16 of those people reside outside the county. Notable donors include County Supervisors John Peschong and Debbie Arnold, County Auditor-Tax Collector Jim Erb, county Superintendent of Schools Jim Brescia, Assemblyman and former Deputy DA Jordan Cunningham, county Chief Medical Officer Christy Mulkerin, and retired Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford.

Dow's also taken about $6,000 from the local Cattlemen's Association, the Lincoln Club, and the North San Luis Obispo County Tea Party.

As of the end of the reporting period, Cummins had spent nearly $55,000 on political consulting and campaign services; Dow spent roughly half that figure, $22,397, on campaign consulting and other services.

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FPPC complaint

Cummins isn't the first local Democratic candidate whose financial practices have been scrutinized by Rice.

A libertarian-leaning political activist and frequent critic of the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party — which has endorsed Cummins — Rice regularly injects himself into local political races, usually in favor of a certain candidate or ballot initiative. Rice said Monday he's a strong supporter of Dow, though records don't show him making financial contributions.

Rice previously filed FPPC complaints against County Supervisor Adam Hill and Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals, resulting in fines to the candidates of $2,500 and $1,101, respectively.

In his new release Monday, Rice lists more than 54 alleged violations including misreporting or otherwise not properly detailing payments to vendors, a figure that Rice claims totals more than $130,000. Rice also alleges that Cummins disclosed three large contributions outside the 24-hour reporting deadline, and misreported a $10,218 in-kind contribution.

In a news release to local media Monday, Rice said he called Cummins personally last week to "helpfully offer him what I was seeing."

"I told him I'd rather not file an FPPC complaint if he could correct the mistakes," Rice wrote. "However, Cummins became combative and told me to 'just file the complaint.'"

Cummins said Tuesday that he was not familiar with Rice until Rice began "harassing" him and his campaign on social media. Cummins did confirm that Rice called him to inform him of the findings before the complaint was filed.

However, Cummins said that Rice is a surrogate for the Dow campaign and that Rice timed the news release to coincide with mail-in ballots being released and a candidate forum Wednesday. Rice knows the results of any FPPC investigation — if there is one — likely won't come out until after the election.

"It's designed to be unfair, designed to be a hit piece. They’ve got it all timed out," Cummins said of Rice and the Dow campaign.

Stephen Puetz, a political consultant with Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies who's representing Dow's campaign, said Tuesday that while he was aware that Rice was "putting something together," he said the campaign had nothing to do with Rice's complaint. Puetz said he was not aware it had been filed until he received Rice's news release on Monday.

"We think the big thing is pretty clear (Cummins is) trying to skirt the spirit of the law of campaign finance regulations," Puetz said. "They're there for a reason: to provide transparency to hold elected officials and candidates accountable."

Cummins doesn't buy that Dow had nothing to do with the Rice complaint and said the district attorney is trying to divert attention from his "abmissmal conviction rate, poor job satisfaction in his office, (and deceased County Jail inmate) Andrew Holland."

"He can't talk about his record. All he can do is smear," Cummins said. "That's the way Dan rolls."

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1