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Pombo, Denham ads fuel legal dispute

FRESNO, CA 5/17/10 MTD DLW DEBATE 1 - Republican candidates for the 19th Congressional District Jeff Denham, left, Jim Patterson, Richard Pombo and Larry Westerlund wait to resume a debate during a radio commerical break at the Tower Theater on Monday May 17, 2010. - DARRELL WONG/THE FRESNO BEE
FRESNO, CA 5/17/10 MTD DLW DEBATE 1 - Republican candidates for the 19th Congressional District Jeff Denham, left, Jim Patterson, Richard Pombo and Larry Westerlund wait to resume a debate during a radio commerical break at the Tower Theater on Monday May 17, 2010. - DARRELL WONG/THE FRESNO BEE Merced Sun-Star

FRESNO--Supporters of two candidates in the hotly contested 19th Congressional District Republican primary are crying foul over radio and television commercials they say violate federal election law.

Experts say the ads probably would stand up in court -- especially after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned a century-old restriction and allowed corporations to spend money in federal elections. But those in the fray insist each others' commercials are illegal.

It's not surprising that the campaigns of state Sen. Jeff Denham and former Congressman Richard Pombo are skirmishing over the ads, political analysts say.

"In a hard-fought primary you go for every weapon you can get," said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.

This is especially true, he said, when there are only minor ideological differences separating the candidates. Such is the case in the 19th District, where four Republicans -- Denham, Pombo, former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson and Fresno City Council President Larry Westerlund -- are vying to replace the retiring George Radanovich.

So far, the policy differences between the four are very narrow. In such races, Pitney said, candidates use personal attacks or procedural maneuvers.

"It moves from a philosophical battle to a personal and a legal battle," he said.

A key issue is two commercials on Valley TV and radio stations. In one, Denham promotes an upcoming benefit concert at Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino to raise money for a specialized license plate program for family members of military personnel killed on active duty. In another, a Modesto-area nursery promoted its annual "Friends Day" event featuring Pombo as a speaker.

The benefit concert commercial, which was paid for by Remembering the Brave Inc., a nonprofit corporation, identifies Denham only as a senator and not as a congressional candidate.

On Friday, an attorney retained by local Republican activist Tal Cloud sent a letter to radio and television stations running the ads, alleging they violate federal campaign law and seeking to have them taken off the air.

The letter states federal election law requires disclaimers including the name, address and telephone or Web site address of the person paying for the ad, and an audio statement that the organization is responsible for the commercial's content.

The commercial clearly benefits Denham's congressional candidacy, said Jessica Levinson, political reform director at the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based think tank. And such ads should have disclaimers that identify the person or organization behind them, she said.

Rep. Devin Nunes, a Visalia Republican and staunch Pombo supporter, joined the criticism, saying the commercials also break campaign law because they were coordinated between Denham's campaign and the commercial sponsors.

But Paul Sullivan, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in election law and is working for Denham, said federal election law does not apply to the commercial because it does not explicitly advocate for the defeat or election of a clearly identified federal candidate.

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