As Tuesday’s general election nears, two Fresno Unified school board members are continuing their campaign against the district’s $225 million bond measure – alleging on Thursday that it’s being funded by “dark money.”
Fresno Unified trustees Brooke Ashjian and Carol Mills joined Fresno County Lincoln Club leader Tal Cloud and Jeff Sands, director of the Central Valley Charter Schools Association, outside One Putt Broadcasting to decry ads the radio station has been running in favor of Measure X. They say the ads – which documents show have been paid for by the station itself – are not honest about who’s really behind them. But John Ostlund, owner of One Putt Broadcasting, has denied the allegations.
“Why is a radio station that’s never participated in a political campaign at this magnitude all of a sudden picking this issue to come in at the eleventh hour when the school district does not have a ‘Yes on Measure X’ campaign? It doesn’t pass the smell test,” Cloud said. “We’re very concerned about how Fresno Unified has operated in the past with their bonds, and we feel there’s a secret deal made somewhere with dark money to support Measure X behind the scenes, and that’s not good for kids or good for the community.”
An independent expenditure report filed with Fresno County on Tuesday shows that One Putt Broadcasting has spent more than $15,000 in Measure X radio ads, and has also set up an independent expenditure to run ads in support of Fresno mayoral candidate Lee Brand. According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, independent expenditures are not made at the behest of the candidate or measure committee they support or oppose, and documentation is required so that voters are informed about who is paying for the communications. The money on the forms represents the value of airtime One Putt sacrificed in order to run the promotional ads.
Fresno Unified’s use of past bond money to pay for no-bid construction contracts is under federal investigation, and Measure X has not received the public support of past bond measures. Critics also point out that it’s unusual there is no official committee established in support of Measure X. In the past, Fresno Unified has had an official committee backing bond measures that donors can give to, and surrounding districts have clear campaign committees for much smaller bond measures.
“They had total community support for Measure Q. They had a ‘Yes on Q’ campaign. It was huge. Where is it on X?” Ashjian said. “The reason it’s not there is because they think whatever they’re going to do, people are going to buy it … Who’s supporting this deal, and where’s the dark money coming from?”
Cloud said he believes the lack of a Yes on Measure X committee is intentional, and is related to the creation of the radio ads.
“I believe they’re afraid to show who the donors will be, given their current FBI investigation,” he said. “This crowd’s doing whatever they want because they’ve gotten away with it in this town for so many years. They think they can sneak one past us again, and it’s not working.”
But Ostlund says the radio ads mean what they say: They are paid for by One Putt Broadcasting. He says he created the independent expenditures because he believes in Measure X, and that he’s had no contact with anyone involved with the school bond measure. He also questioned Ashjian and Cloud’s motives – saying they’re “all hat, no cowboy.”
“This is what Brooke Ashjian does. The guy is just creepy. I just don’t think he should be a trustee. I think it’s nuts,” Ostlund said. “This is not about Measure X. This is not about our position on Measure X. They have been out to get (FUSD superintendent) Mike Hanson for a long time. This is not a secret.”
Ostlund said he hired San Francisco-based attorney Jay Carson, who specializes in political action committee and campaign finance law, prior to creating the independent expenditures to be extra careful.
Carson said Thursday that Ostlund had properly filled out his paperwork despite allegations at the news conference that he had left information out.
“He hasn’t received any money to do this. The only money – or only thing – being provided is by the radio station, which is air time,” Carson said. “I think there’s some confusion, but the fact of the matter is One Putt hasn’t accepted any money.”
Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said the district has never been involved in campaign committees.
“It’s more of the same, which is baseless allegations,” he said. “I would hope that our elected officials and community leaders would be more careful with such allegations.”