From Today’s Saratogian
Safford’s campaign ads ruled unfair
by CHARLIE KRAEBEL and JENNIE GREY
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> Republican mayoral candidate John Safford was found guilty Nov. 2 of violating fair campaign practices over a mailer and a television ad criticizing incumbent Mayor Joanne Yepsen for taking political action committee (PAC) cash.
“On this day before Election Day, we have received a very decisive ruling on the unfair campaign practices of my opponent,” said Yepsen at a Nov. 2 press conference about the ruling. “His TV commercial has been spewing nothing but lies and falsehoods. The general hostility of these ads also led us to make a rebuttal video available online, as well as seek a ruling from the Fair Campaign Practices (FCP) for the Capital Region. The FCP is there to educate the public.”
The FCP was initiated in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties in 2001 for the purpose of educating the public about misleading and unfair campaign practices.
A pool of 32 individuals from the four-county region is selected to hear complaints. These community representatives serve on hearing panels that determine the validity of complaints. To ensure a balanced, fair process for all sides, the local chairs of all the recognized political parties, or their designees, automatically become ex officio members of the FCP Hearing Panel and attend hearings.
FCP Chairman Rev. Dr. Maurice Drown said the organization reached its decision after receiving a formal complaint from the Democratic mayor earlier in the day.
But Bijoy Datta, a spokesman for Safford’s campaign, said he spoke to the FCP Monday afternoon and claimed the organization made its initial determination without seeing the ads in question.
“Yepsen’s campaign provided them only with excerpts that specifically excluded the source citations and explanations that were clearly on the advertising,” Datta said. “It’s the irony of ironies — she misled them in her complaint about our allegedly misleading advertising.”
Safford said, “We first brought out these numbers during the candidate forum, and we dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.”
However, Yepsen campaign manager Will Sharry provided the Saratogian with a copy of the mayor’s complaint to the FCP, which had two images of the mailer in question attached.
In an email, Drown confirmed the committee’s original ruling.
“Following contact from the Safford campaign, during which I was told that today’s communication was the first they had received, I said we would review our notes and findings,” he wrote. “I also gave them the email address to which prior communications had been sent. Shortly thereafter, I received a call back with the message that they had found the prior communications, but that they still contested our conclusions. If there had been a failure to communicate on our part, that would have been fatal to our findings. However, our review led to reaffirmation of our previous findings.”
The FCP board stated it reviewed all the information and found Safford’s materials to be “egregious misrepresentations of facts, and Candidate Safford guilty of unfair campaign practices.”
In her complaint, Yepsen said Safford, who is the endorsed candidate of the Saratoga PAC, sent a mail piece and aired an ad accusing Yepsen of receiving more than $247,190 in campaign cash. The mailer reads, “Joanne Yepsen took in $247,190 in campaign cash from PACs, political committees and hidden donors.”
Yepsen’s complaint states the ads violated a fair campaign practices principle that tells candidates to not use any material or ad that misrepresents, distorts or otherwise falsifies a face or the facts regarding the candidate or opponent.
Yepsen said Safford was using campaign finance reports dating back to 2005 and for different offices, and was leading voters to believe she accepted this money during this election cycle. Yepsen acknowledged taking $47,300 from PACs, which included contributions when she ran for county supervisor and for the state senate.
Safford’s mailer does note that the total amount of cash dates back to 2005, and it breaks down the figures by donor category. But since the front of the mailer reads, “How much PAC money did Joanne Yepsen take?” — with a dollar sign in place of the S in “Yepsen” — the focus of the piece is clearly on the alleged PAC connection.
Back at the Oct. 27 League of Women Voters of Saratoga County candidate forum, Safford responded to a question about his opinion of the Saratoga PAC.
He said then, “I support the PAC’s point of view and am pleased with the citywide survey it conducted. But the committee hasn’t given me a penny — just the endorsement.”
In her complaint, the mayor also took aim at Safford’s claim that she received nearly $57,000 in “hidden cash” because state Board of Elections law does not require donors who contribute less than $100 to be identified.
“I am proud of our grassroots campaign,” Yepsen said. “We have hundreds of volunteers and 500 contributors.”
Safford said one main issue he and his supporters have with Yepsen is that she accepts money from union donors and then negotiates their contracts as mayor.
“PACs have a negative connotation,” Yepsen said at the press conference. “Many people really don’t like PAC money.”
She said she is proud to accept donations from the committees and groups that have supported her, which include Saratoga Springs Firefighters, New York League of Conservation Voters, Empire State Pride Agenda, Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, CSEA, Saratoga County Labor Council, Communications Workers of America, Sheet Metal Workers Local 83, Northeast Carpenters and SEIU 1199.
Yepsen said she was proud of her own positive and truthful campaign for a second term as mayor.
“I am running on the issues and my record,” she said. “I’m the people’s mayor. I have gotten a lot of great positive responses from the voters. People don’t like negative advertising.”
Safford said, “I feel like American Pharaoh fighting down the rail. This is a real horse race.”