Despite spending decades as a self-proclaimed “government watchdog,” conservative radio host turned congressional candidate Andy Caldwell has accepted campaign contributions exceeding the legal limit from more than a handful of individual donors — to the tune of more than $22,000, a San Luis Obispo County Tribune review has found.
And though incumbent Rep. Salud Carbajal has sworn off contributions from the oil and gas industry, he’s accepted perfectly legal donations from two registered lobbyists, one of whom did work for a firm on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute.
A Tribune review of campaign finance disclosures in the 24th Congressional District race since July found that Caldwell’s reports submitted to the Federal Election Commission were peppered with miscategorized donations, donations exceeding the allowable limits, and other questionable contributions.
When reached for comment on the discrepancies, Caldwell downplayed the errors as simple paperwork mistakes and boxes not checked properly on the forms.
He can amend those reports, however, and said he would have his treasurer look into it.
Caldwell has had a strong showing of financial support since he filed to challenge the two-term Democratic Party incumbent Carbajal in August.
In fact, the outspoken conservative’s campaign out-raised Carbajal in the last two consecutive reporting periods, and has amassed more than a half-million dollars, 95 percent of which came from individuals and small businesses within the district, which encompasses all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, as well as a portion of northern Ventura County.
Carbajal, on the other hand, has raised over $1.2 million this election cycle from a variety of individuals, businesses, and political action committees. His campaign reports do not show the types of discrepancies that plague Caldwell’s disclosures, according to the Tribune review.
Both men, endorsed by their respective local political parties, are expected to advance past the primary election to face off in the Nov. 3 general election.
Their sole opponent, Kenneth Young, a Santa Barbara engineer registered with no party preference, has not raised any money requiring a public disclosure and has little presence in San Luis Obispo County.
‘I Don’t Break Laws’
Caldwell’s financial disclosure forms were authored by his treasurer, Trent Benedetti, who has worked on other local Republican candidates’ campaigns, including that of Justin Fareed, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Carbajal over the past four years.
When asked by The Tribune for clarification on specific entries in his reports, Caldwell said Benedetti “doesn’t do media interviews,” but added that all his reports would be reviewed by the Federal Elections Commission.
Caldwell’s three financial reports filed with the FEC since August are riddled with instances of individual donors being listed as organizations, so that it’s unclear whether contributions are coming from a person or a business.
As the reports are currently written, a dozen contributors have also exceeded the $2,800 limit an individual is allowed to contribute to a campaign per election, i.e., the primary election and the general election.
For example, on Nov. 13, 2019, five members of the Teixeira family in Santa Maria and Nipomo each donated $5,600, with each donation marked on the reports as only to go toward the primary election. As written, the Teixeiras donated $14,000 too much.
One of the five donors, Mark Teixeira, is listed in tax documents as the secretary of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) of Santa Barbara County, of which Caldwell is founder and chairman.
Asked about those donations, Caldwell said that each of the Teixeiras’ donations were on behalf of both themselves and each of their spouses, whose names were omitted from the reports in error.
Several other similar donations from individuals listed for use specifically in the primary were well over the $2,800 limit.
All told — including the five Teixeira donations — Caldwell accepted $22,596 more than he should have, as the reports are currently filled out, according to Tribune calculations.
Basic transparency is also lacking in his forms. For example, Caldwell has an “anonymous donor” who has donated a cumulative total of $719 to his campaign. Identities must be publicly disclosed for contributions over $50. Another donor’s address is simply listed as “best efforts.”
Asked about the entries Friday, Caldwell says his campaign makes a good-faith effort to correctly report each donation and to make sure that the forms are submitted to the FEC correctly.
“I don’t break laws, and I don’t do things under the table,” Caldwell said.
He said that when he’s accepting donations from individuals — many of whom have never donated to a political campaign before, he said — donor information sometimes will get inadvertently left off of the envelopes. His treasurer’s accounting firm accepts the donations, and if any information is lacking, the firm will try to reach the donor for more information.
“But they don’t just sit there and not cash the check,” he said.
Caldwell noted in his defense that this is his first run for office, and that he does not personally review his own campaign reports. Rather, he depends on his donors and treasurer to ensure their accuracy.
“I don’t understand campaign finance laws,” Caldwell said. “There’s nothing nefarious about it, for crying out loud.”
Carbajal’s Lobbyist Donations
Carbajal’s reports reviewed by The Tribune do not contain the various discrepancies seen in Caldwell’s reports.
But in a district where oil and gas production is a controversial topic — he introduced a bill last week to place a moratorium on new drilling in local federal lands without strict environmental review — Carbajal has pledged to not accept any funding from oil and gas producers.
Two years ago, Carbajal was on the receiving end of dubious claims by Fareed’s campaign that he accepted $7,500 in “oil and gas money.” A Tribune review of the claim confirmed that figure included personal donations from people who work as lobbyists, consultants, and other positions for companies with varying degrees of proximity to the oil industry.
None of the donors actually did any work directly with oil companies.
But in recent months, Carbajal’s financial reports show his campaign has again accepted two $500 donations from two registered lobbyists, one of which has worked for a company that listed the American Petroleum Institute as a client in 2019 in disclosures filed with the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The lobbyist, Washington, D.C.-based Joseph Vaughan, is not directly involved in the oil industry, however, and is the executive director of an organization that promotes corporate diversity.
Vaughan said he personally contributes to the campaigns of numerous members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and candidates seeking federal office in several states.
“More diversity on Capitol Hill is critical, and my contributions are integral to achieving this outcome,” Vaughan wrote.
Unlike candidates for state and local elected office in California, who are prohibited from accepting money or in-kind contributions from registered lobbyists, candidates for federal office like Carbajal are allowed to accept personal donations from lobbyists within the standard $2,800-per-person limit.
Last month, Morro Bay Councilwoman and candidate for state Assembly Dawn Addis accepted a $250 donation from a lobbyist with clients in the wind energy industry. That lobbyist, Steven Black, said at the time that he was used to federal lobbying regulations and was not aware of the California rules.
That donation was immediately returned, an Addis spokeswoman said.
Asked for comment about the two recent lobbyist donations, Carbajal’s campaign says the donations were made personally, the rules were followed, and that Vaughan does not lobby on behalf of the oil industry.
Vaughan said in an email that while he has never contributed to the American Petroleum Institute’s PAC, facilitated any PAC contributions from the institute to a member of Congress, nor attended any PAC events hosted by API or its member firms, he did lobby briefly on behalf of the association with congressional members of the Oil and Gas Caucus from Texas.
Specifically, Vaughan said his firm, United By Interest, helped organize a site visit for several congressional members to Chevron’s training facility in the Houston area.
“Lobbying is a component, but our relationship was really focused on trying to educate (House) members around how their constituents can find high-paying jobs in the industry,” Vaughan wrote.
Matt Fountain is a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.