The battle lines have been drawn in an unusual public records spat between a state agency responsible for upholding election laws and the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. Department of Justice yesterday asked a federal court to dismiss a California Fair Political Practices Commission lawsuit accusing the U.S. Postal Service of withholding records.
The commission regulates the political activities of public officials, lobbyists and campaign committees and enforces California's campaign reporting and disclosure requirements, conflict-of-interest rules, and election laws.
It sued the post office last month after postal officials refused to provide unredacted copies of a school board candidate's mailing records. The commission is investigating whether the candidate, William Eisen, a former member of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District's board, violated election disclosure rules.
Justice Department attorneys argue that the state commission isn't "entitled" to the records and want the commission to repay the federal government's legal fees. According to the filing: "Defendant asserts that Plaintiff is not entitled to the relief requested, or to any relief whatsoever, and requests that this action be dismissed in its entirety with prejudice and that Defendant be given such other relief as this Court deems proper, including costs and disbursements."
The recent court filings highlight a rare information spat between a state regulatory office charged with guarding against political corruption and the federal Justice Department.
The state watchdog agency is investigating allegations that Eisen violated campaign disclosure rules in an attempt to stave off a bitter 2008 recall campaign. In particular, commission investigators wanted to know whether mass mailings sent in support of Eisen's re-election that purportedly came from the South Bay Taxpayers Association and the South Bay Republican Club were actually sent by Eisen.
Eisen has said he followed all laws. He said he asked the post office to protect his records out of concerns for his privacy.
"Have some government agency poking around in my mail? Of course I would object to it," Eisen said. "I have a right to privacy, just like any mailer or mailing house."
Commission officials have said their ability to investigate crime could be crippled if they are denied access to the mailing records, according to the lawsuit:
California, twelve other states, and the Federal Election Commission all regulate mailed political communications with regard to either the number of mailed pieces or dollar amount spent on the mail pieces before being categorized as a mass mailing.
Without compliance from the USPS, neither these 13 states, nor the federal government will be able to determine whether a mailing is in violation of their respective laws. The USPS denial of these claims will effectively shut down enforcement of state and federal laws regarding campaign communication disclosure on mass mailings, thereby depriving the public of the ability to identify and take action against persons in violation of these laws.
Earlier this month, Eisen filed documents with the court, arguing that the state sought to embarrass him and that the lawsuit was unnecessary to enforce campaign laws. The court has set a hearing in the case for April 2 at the federal courthouse in Sacramento.