Photoshopped campaign mailers sent in a Los Angeles City Council race in the San Fernando Valley are sparking accusations of election law violation and counterallegations of hypocrisy.
A political advocacy group called Latinas Lead California sent a “cease and desist” letter Monday to Council District 7 candidate Karo Torossian, demanding he stop using photoshopped images of rival candidate Monica Rodriguez in his mailers.
The group is backing Rodriguez in the race for District 7, which includes Sylmar, Sunland and Pacoima.
The mailers show Rodriguez’s head attached to the body of a woman in a black suit holding a sign that states, “I am funded by Chevron,” against the backdrop of an ominous-looking oil-drilling operation.
The woman’s body was taken from a stock photo, according to Rodriguez’s campaign. The original image also shows the woman holding a blank sign.
Latinas Lead California and Rodriguez’s campaign say Torossian’s campaign is violating California Elections Code section 20010.
The election law says campaigns can’t falsely represent a candidate by superimposing the candidate’s image onto another picture or photograph unless accompanied by a disclaimer.
Latinas Lead California argues that the mailer gives the false impression that Rodriguez is holding the Chevron sign.
“It is this type of false, misleading, and gutter-style politics that often prevents women from running for office,” the letter states. It is signed by Julissa Gomez, board vice chair of Latinas Lead California, and nine others.
Gomez said the group had not submitted the letter to local or state election authorities.
Rodriguez campaign spokesman Josh Pulliam accused Torossian of “attacking his opponent with fabricated images” in a statement Monday.
Chevron has become a controversial issue in the May 16 runoff election because the oil company backed Rodriguez in the primary.
In an email, Torossian campaign spokesman Eric Hacopian called the allegations over the mailer “ridiculous.” He pointed to a mailer sent out by Rodriguez in her 2007 race for Los Angeles City Council.
In that race, Rodriguez’s campaign photoshopped the head of then-candidate Richard Alarcon onto the body of a cartoon frog. In a 2007 radio interview, Rodriguez said her mailer was done to “demonstrate to the voters pictorially that Mr. Alarcon has hopped from job to job.”
Asked about the frog mailer, Pulliam said Rodriguez was told that her campaign communications complied with the law and had met the disclaimer requirements.
A version of the mailer accessible on her former consultant’s website does not make it clear if it included a disclaimer.
Fred Woocher, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in election and constitutional law and is not involved in the race, said he believes the photoshopped mailer showing Rodriguez with the Chevron sign “comes too close to the line” in violating the state election law.
But it could be protected political speech under the U.S. Constitution, he added.
Given the apparent gray area, Woocher said he wouldn’t advise a client to send the mailer.
Rodriguez and Torossian were the top two vote-getters in the March 7 election for the Valley seat, which was vacated when Felipe Fuentes stepped down to join a lobbying firm.