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The Republican primary to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as governor of California has spawned a flood of ads attacking both Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, and Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner -- the two frontrunners for the nomination.
One ad, aired by Whitman beginning in midMay, attacks Poizner's fitness to be the Republican nominee in part by charging that he gave $10,000 to the 2000 presidential recount effort of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president. The ad asks, "How liberal is Steve Poizner?" then answers its own question by proposing a litany of evidence, including the charge that Poizner "gave $10,000 to Al Gore's recount."
The Poizner camp concedes that a federal disclosure form does indeed show that the Gore account received a $10,000 check signed by Poizner, whom the federal form identifies as an employee of the high-tech company Qualcomm. Qualcomm had earlier purchased Poizner's Silicon Vallley startup, SnapTrack Inc. Technically, the donation was made to a Democratic National Committee affiliate, but the campaign did not challenge the ad's description of the donation as being intended for the recount.
However, the Poizner campaign has consistently argued that the check (as well as a separate $1,000 check made out to Gore 2000 Inc.) was written on a joint account and actually was intended to be a donation from his wife, Carol Poizner.
"As Steve has made clear numerous times over the last 10 years, his wife is a Democrat," Poizner campaign press secretary Bettina Inclán told PolitiFact. "Steve’s wife supported Al Gore and contributions were made through their joint checking account. Steve voted for President Bush in 2000, worked for President Bush, and voted for President Bush again in 2004."
We wondered whether this explanation might be credible, so we checked in (no pun intended) with some campaign-finance experts.
Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a campaign-finance advocacy group, and Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance and ethics counsel at the Washington, D.C., law firm Arent Fox, both agreed that it's possible that it could have happened as the campaign says it did.
"It's true that Federal Election Commission regulations do require that campaigns attribute checks drawn on a joint checking account to the last person who signs the check, and (the Poizners) should have specified that the check was coming from her either by making a notation on the check or in an accompanying letter," Kappel said. "But did you ever write a check for something your wife wanted? I have."
At the same time, Kappel added that it's fair to fault Poizner for acting sloppily if he did that, since people with political ambitions tend to be very careful about such matters.
In addition, the forms for both donations list Steve Poizner's employer -- Qualcomm in one case and SnapTrack in the other. This suggests that either Poizner filed a supplementary form explaining the donation (a step that's recommended but not required under federal campaign finance law) or that staffers for Gore looked into the donation and had a reason to attribute the donation to him, as opposed to his wife, when they filed the disclosure form.
It's worth noting that Whitman -- a fellow Silicon Valley business titan -- has also fielded accusations from the Poizner camp about her own past partisan lapses. We are separately fact-checking the claim that Whitman "contributed to, and campaigned, for Barbara Boxer," California's liberal Democratic senator.
It also bears mentioning that, for someone the campaign describes as still being "a Democrat," Carol Poizner has donated an awful lot of money to the GOP. Ever since she gave $2,000 to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2001, she has, in her own name, donated almost $90,000 to such recipients as the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican National Committee and the California Republican Party.
Ultimately, there is no way to prove with any certainty whether Steve Poizner was simply writing a check for his wife, as he suggests. Experts tell us it could have happened that way. But under the law, the fact that he signed the check officially makes the donation his, and the listing of his employer, rather than his wife's, on the disclosure form provides additional evidence that he was the intended donor. So while the case isn't conclusive, its strongly suggestive. We rate the Whitman campaign's claim Mostly True.
Meg Whitman, "How Liberal" (television ad), accessed May 18, 2010
Sacramento Bee, "Ad Watch: Whitman tries to pin 'liberal' tag on Poizner," May 14, 2010
Frum Forum, "GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Downplays Donations to Gore, Kerry" (blog post), Sep. 22, 2009
Federal Election Commission, disclosure form for Gore 2000 Inc., accessed May 18, 2010
Federal Election Commission, disclosure form for DNC Services Corp./Democratic National Committee, accessed May 18, 2010
Sacramento Bee, "Dan Morain: Poizner pulling off the improbable as he narrows Whitman's vast lead," May 16, 2010
E-mail interview with Bettina Inclán, press secretary for Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner, May 17, 2010
E-mail interview with Brett Kappel, counsel with Arent Fox LLP, May 18, 2010
E-mail interview with Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, May 18, 2010
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