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The Legality And Ethics Of Political Support

Evening Edition

Above: Dan Eaton, a San Diego attorney with Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, talks to KPBS about employer-influenced political decisions.

Aired 8/1/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS:

Dan Eaton, San Diego attorney with Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek

Chris Carson, Campaign Finance Director, League of Women Voters of California

Transcript

As the next round of elections looms, here's an important tip to remember: by California law, employers can't require you to vote for, contribute to, or otherwise support a political candidate.

But, they can invite you to do so, said Dan Eaton, a San Diego attorney with Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek.

"Saying, 'here's a candidate you might want to consider,' that's different," he said.

Employers "urging" employees comes closer to the line, Eaton said, but "suggesting" is just fine.

"The more an employer intrudes into the political life of an employee, the closer to the line it gets," he said.

Chris Carson, the campaign finance director for the League of Women Voters of California, said she hears stories illustrating how nuanced the balance can be.

"Someone who was up to be a partner with a large, international public accounting firm was asked to give a contribution to a particular candidate running in another state," Carson said. "The person said, 'well, that's not my party.' And they said well -- they didn't actually say if you don't make the contribution, you won't make partner -- but it got pretty close."

"So the person gave the money because they thought it was pretty clear, even though there hadn't been an actual statement made," Carson added.

Eaton said companies also can't offer a financial bonus for support or donations or offer to reimburse donations made to candidates.

"That's money laundering," he said. "If you're trying to hide who the source of the money is, that's illegal, that's a crime."

Eaton said unions can encourage members to vote for a particular candidate, but members can also opt out of their dues being used for particular political activities.

If someone feels he is being coerced into supporting a candidate, Eaton said the first step is to simply object.

"The first thing is not to call an attorney," he said. "As an attorney I'm a little scared saying that."

But, he said, California law is so strong that most employers will listen to an employee's objections.

Eaton said non-profits, including churches, also can't advocate specifically for political candidates. But, he said, churches can speak about political issues and ballot initiatives, as long as they don't devote themselves entirely to politics.

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.

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