Cisneros, Steel both face complaints over campaign banners
A Democratic incumbent and a front-running GOP challenger in Orange County House races are both catching heat over campaign banners displayed at recent events, with even minor potential rules violations drawing swift rebuke from critics months before the primary in these hotly contested districts.
A 38th District resident recently filed an ethics complaint with federal authorities against Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Yorba Linda. The problem? A banner displayed at a taxpayer-funded congressional event included an official House seal alongside contact information for the Cisneros campaign, a potential violation of House rules.
Meanwhile, in the 48th District, a GOP House candidate is complaining to local authorities because Second District Supervisor Michelle Steel, also a Republican, allegedly used a Huntington Beach city logo on banners at a kickoff event for her recently announced campaign for the seat.
Candidates can’t have official government logos on campaign materials, since that could confuse voters into thinking those bodies support their campaigns. And in Cisneros’ case, there’s also concern about any use of taxpayer dollars to pay for those election materials — something his staffers deny took place.
While campaign ethics expert Bob Stern, who previously ran the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies, said both instances are fair game for complaints, he said they also seem to be nothing more than “careless” errors.
“The mistakes shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “But these are not capital offenses.”
Cisneros accused of ‘comingling’ roles
The complaint about Cisneros stemmed from an April 6 Town Hall held in Chino Hills.
As Cisneros spoke to residents about his first months in office, a banner hanging beside the freshman congressman included the official House seal. But that seal was above a website address and a Twitter handle that were connected to Cisneros’ campaign sites, not his congressional office.
Ryan Hoskins, a resident of Cisneros’ 38th District, filed a complaint April 22 with the Office of Congressional Ethics over the banner. He alleged the poster violated House rules since there was an improper “comingling” of Cisneros’ roles as congressman and candidate.
Cisneros’ office said they didn’t initially notice that a vendor hired to make the banner mistakenly included the campaign addresses rather than the congressman’s official contact information. They said no taxpayer money was spent on the now-banished banner, since the vendor had billed them for the materials and agreed to drop those charges once staffers discovered the error just as the April 6 town hall ended.
The Office of Congressional Ethics doesn’t discuss whether it’s investigating complaints. If the agency refers the complaint to the Committee on Ethics for review, that referral should become public, though that process can take months.
Such errors are fairly common with new politicians, Stern said — particularly when, like Cisneros, they haven’t previously held office.
If anything, Stern suspects the complaint might end with a written reprimand or small fine for Cisneros. If tax dollars were spent on the banner, Stern said the congressman should pay them back with campaign funds and apologize. “Then,” he said, “we should move on.”
Steel uses ‘HB’ logo
The issue with Steel is also minor, according to Stern.
At a May 1 kickoff event for her 48th District race against Rep. Harley Rouda, social media posts show Steel posing for photos in front of a banner that has a stylized “HB” logo. The logo was commissioned by the city of Huntington Beach five decades ago and appears on official city communications.
Brian Burley, an information technology entrepreneur running against Steel in CA-48, sent a letter to Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates and the Orange County District Attorney’s office about Steel’s use of the logo. Along with citing a potential trademark violation, Burley said the logo could make people think the city sponsored Steel’s campaign event, which he called “a shame.”
Steel’s campaign didn’t comment on the issue. And Gates didn’t respond to Burley’s complaint or calls to provide information about the logo.
In October, Gates threatened on social media to take legal action against Democratic city council candidate Dan Kalmick for using the “HB” logo on campaign materials. But Gates later apologized and said the logo wasn’t under current trademark.
Either way, Stern said it’s up to the city of Huntington Beach to defend its logo. That would likely mean a simple letter from Gates letting candidates know the city-commissioned logo can’t be used to campaign for office.
This isn’t the first time Steel has been criticized for campaign materials.
In early 2018, Steel was accused of spending $5,800 in taxpayer funds to send out 16,000 public mailers for campaigning purposes. Though residents threatened legal action, nothing came from that complaint.