Supporters of two candidates in the 19th Congressional District Republican primary are crying foul over radio and television commercials they say violate federal election law.
On one side of the dispute is a May 7 speech at Duarte Nursery of Hughson by Richard Pombo, a former congressman from the Tracy area who is seeking the seat.
On the other side is the role of state Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater in promoting a Madera County concert benefitting the families of fallen service members next week.
Election experts said the ads reflect the fierce competition for the seat, which is coming open with the retirement of Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. The GOP primary also has drawn Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson.
Paul Sullivan, a lawyer working for the Denham campaign, told The Fresno Bee that a radio ad for the nursery event amounted to a political pitch on behalf of Pombo. The event, known as Friends Day, was an annual gathering of Duarte's business associates.
Sullivan cited a recent Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations to spend money in federal elections but barred them from coordinating with a campaign.
He said Duarte's commercial touched on Pombo's candidacy, and coordination was evident by "the mere fact that Pombo ... showed up at the event."
The accusation drew a sharp response from nursery president John Duarte, a prominent supporter of Republican causes. He said Friends Day has often had politicians as guest speakers, including Denham in 2006.
After the election law accusation appeared, Duarte sent an "open letter" to Denham via newspapers in the district.
"Your recent attack on my family and Duarte Nursery regarding the legality of our Friends Day radio promotions on KMJ 580AM radio shows severe lack of depth in your character, your loyalty, your intellect and your most basic capacities of simple recollection," the letter said.
Duarte later said he will support Pombo in the June 8 primary because of his experience as chairman of the House Resources Committee during part of his 1993-2007 tenure, which could help the district's farmers maintain their water supplies.
Wasn't me, Denham says
Denham said Thursday that he was not the source of the accusation and that it was made only in Sullivan's comments to the Fresno paper.
Denham added that the Duartes "have been friends of mine. They just have a different candidate than me, and that's their right."
It's not surprising that the Denham and Pombo campaigns 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.
"It moves from a philosophical battle to a personal and a legal battle," he said.
Where are the disclaimers?
The Denham commercial, which was paid for by Remembering the Brave Inc., a nonprofit corporation, identifies Denham only as a state senator and not as a congressional candidate.
Last week, an attorney retained by 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. Such ads should have disclaimers that identify the person or organization behind them, she said.
Sullivan said federal law does not apply to the commercial because it does not explicitly advocate for the defeat or election of a clearly identified federal candidate.
Fresno Bee staff writer John Ellis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-441-6320.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.