State campaign finance regulators have decided not to launch an investigation into one of the apparent tactics the Valero Energy Corp. may have used in order to influence the Benicia City Council election. The San Antonio-based oil company operates a refinery that's one of the Solano County city's largest employers.
City officials last month filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) against the Valero refinery in connection with a series of phone calls made to Benicia residents about the election.
City Attorney Heather McLaughlin alleged that Valero sponsored a so-called push poll that may have involved a questioner laying out negative statements about one of the council candidates the company opposes, and positive ones about two candidates the company sees as allies — but did not disclose it was behind the poll during the calls.
The FPPC said Thursday it would not pursue an enforcement action against Valero.
"The Enforcement Division found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act," Galena West, the division's chief, wrote in a letter on Thursday.
The company says it's not surprised by the FPPC's decision.
"It only highlights the greater concern that the Mayor and Vice Mayor consistently and inappropriately use their City Council leadership positions and our city resources to advance their agenda against our company," the refinery said in an open letter Thursday to the city's residents.
Valero and five of its allies have spent more than $165,000 on a political action committee to influence the election, an amount that's close to three times as much as all of the candidates have raised combined.
The PAC is pushing to defeat Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist, and is backing Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada, to candidates the committee sees as Valero backers.
The energy company claims that McLaughlin, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Vice Mayor Steve Young inappropriately used city money, time and energy to go after Valero in an effort that supports Birdseye.
"The goal of these political antics is to provide the Mayor with a secure majority vote for a single minded agenda to negatively impact our refinery," Valero said. "This is just the latest example of the Mayor using bully tactics against our company in her quest to shut down our business," the company said.
Birdseye has been critical of the refinery and has expressed support for the mayor's proposed safety regulations that emerged after Valero's May 5, 2017 full-facility power outage that led to a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide.
That proposal, called an Industrial Safety Ordinance, failed at the City Council.
Strawbridge and Largaespada do not support the ordinance. The three candidates, along with a fourth candidate, William Emes, are running for two spots on the Council.
McLaughlin, the city attorney, said the city was disappointed with the FPPC's decision but is still looking into the matter. In fact, city officials still have not been able to confirm what questions were used in the poll, she said.
On Thursday night, the Council directed McLaughlin to get a copy of the questions from the commission and Valero to determine if they violated the city's clean campaign laws.
One of the firms Valero hired to conduct the poll, EMC, has refused to hand the questions over.
Gary Winuk, a lawyer representing EMC, argued that the poll was conducted in full compliance with federal, state and local laws. EMC does not engage in campaign advertising and the poll was not partisan, Winuk argued in a Oct. 9 letter to the city.
The poll's purpose was to gather feedback from local voters and the company is not obligated to hand over its questions, according to Winuk.
"Professional polling companies are under no obligation to provide you with the information you requested," he said.
Mayor Patterson and Vice Mayor Young disagree.
"We are seeking facts to determine if the polling was for or against candidates," Patterson said.
"We respect freedom of speech even for large, mega-billion-dollar fossil fuel corporations trying to bully and buy council seats." she said in an email.
"There is no reason why Valero or the polling company should not now agree to our repeated requests to provide a copy to the city," Young wrote, also in an email Friday.