What’s the Difference Between the Chamber and the Chamber PAC? Not Much

By Robert Haugh

We received an interesting email recently. It was for the Santa Clara Chamber Political Action Committee’s (PAC) Golf Tournament.

At first, it was unimpressive and we almost deleted it. This year they’re holding it at the Pruneridge Golf Course. It’s not one of the nicer courses in the area. And they don’t really have any impressive sponsors, just the Mlnarik Law Group, Slatter Construction, Off the Wall Soccer and Dave Tobkin.

But before moving the email to the trash folder, we noticed who sent it — the Santa Clara Chamber, itself, not the PAC. This is interesting and may not be legal. The Chamber is a nonprofit who’s not suppose to engage in political fundraising. That’s the PAC’s job.

Santa Clara Chamber PAC
A March 12 email from the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce promoting a Chamber PAC golf tournament.

But for years, some Chamber directors have been running the PAC. Some of the more active members are:  Miles Barber, ArLyne Diamond, Lou Mariani, Andy Ratermann and Dave Tobkin. They don’t have a great record with Santa Clara elections. In 2016, they led the effort to oppose two incumbent councilwomen: Debi Davis and Kathy Watanabe. Barber even wrote a highly personal and offensive editorial about them. He wrote in Trumpian fashion that they “can’t spell their own names”. No kidding. Barber actually wrote that.

Oh by the way, Davis and Watanabe won in landslides.

This year, they’ve hired a political consulting firm with close ties to Ratermann to look for council candidates and a potential challenger to Mayor Lisa Gillmor. Sounds like they’re headed for another less than stellar political campaign year.

We’ve also pointed out in the past some issues with the way the PAC does business:

“The PAC uses some of its separate funds to pay for political ads, flyers, and televised interviews. Almost all of these expenses are paid to Chamber board and members,” Tobkin, who’s a CPA, told us. That practice sounds like “self dealing” which is legally prohibited by the IRS.

The email invitation to the golf tournament may not be a big deal. But it is a pretty obvious sign that the there’s really no line between the Chamber and the PAC.

In other cities, the Chamber and PAC are completely different entities. That’s the case in Sunnyvale for example with SUNPAC.

Given the all the political missteps the PAC has made recently, the Santa Clara Chamber may need to follow Sunnyvale’s example.

But it may be too late to cut the cord. Everyone thinks the Santa Clara Chamber and the PAC are the same. Their emails suggest they are.

Santa Clara Chamber PAC
The full March 12 email from the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce promoting the Chamber PAC golf tournament.

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