Your Tax Dollars Are Helping Katie Porter Promote Her Anti-Corruption Crusade

Ethics experts cry foul over $227,000 in campaign-style ads

Rep. Katie Porter (D., Calif.) / Getty Images
February 16, 2023

California Rep. Katie Porter (D.), who has worked to craft an image as an anti-corruption crusader, funneled over $200,000 in taxpayer dollars to campaign-like advertisements lauding her efforts to "Hold Oil Companies Accountable" and fight "corporate price gouging," a move that ethics experts say could put her on the wrong side of campaign finance laws.

Porter’s office last year paid $227,000 in taxpayer dollars to a pair of Democratic firms for digital ads and mailers touting the Democrat’s record. Though technically not campaign ads, the ads used promotional language and photos that closely mirrored Porter’s campaign materials from the same period. Federal regulations require lawmakers maintain a firewall between their congressional offices and campaigns and prohibit repurposing campaign material for public business.

According to ethics watchdog Kendra Arnold, Porter’s ad spending may put her on the wrong side of these rules.

"The law absolutely prohibits members from using taxpayer dollars for political purposes," Arnold, executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Clearly running political-style campaign ads with official funds would fall under this rule."

These allegations could hurt Porter as she runs to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.). Porter has pitched herself to voters as a "warrior" who will "stand up to special interests" and hold Republicans "accountable for rigging our democracy." The specter of unethical conduct could hinder Porter as she plunges into a contentious Democratic primary alongside more well-known candidates, including Reps. Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee.

Porter’s communications director Jordan Wong denied any office wrongdoing in a statement to the Free Beacon, noting that all public spending happened outside the "60-day black-out periods" before the election. Wong also insisted that Porter’s publicly funded materials were reviewed and approved by the bipartisan Communications Standards Commission, and that House rules permit lawmakers to use taxpayer money to update their constituents on legislative activities.

But Arnold disagreed with Wong’s characterization of the ads, which tout Porter as a fighter who "crack[s] down" on abuse and "holds corporations accountable for price-gouging."

"If the substance of a taxpayer-funded ad and a campaign ad are substantially similar or identical, that indicates both are in fact for a political purpose and both are campaign ads," Arnold said. "In this case it appears that not only was the substance of many of the ads similar or the same, but also the same vendor was used by her campaign and her congressional office and many ads were disseminated in the same way."

Both Porter’s campaign ads and official materials were written and produced by Wavelength Strategy, a Democratic digital campaign consultancy. While Porter’s office halted spending at the beginning of the 60-day blackout period, her campaign picked up the slack, funneling more than $1.4 million to the firm between late August and early November.

Her office invested the bulk of its promotional money just after the June primary, as Porter faced a tough election challenge from Republican candidate Scott Baugh. Porter launched a massive fundraising drive and spent more than $24 million to eke out a win by a margin of just over 8,200 votes.

Beginning in March 2022, Porter’s office paid an initial $50,000 to Wavelength Strategy for ads and printing, according to receipts compiled by House administrators. In that same time period, her campaign paid the firm $93,000 for media buys.

Shortly after the June 7 primary, Porter’s office began pumping more money into ads, paying a total of $130,000 to Wavelength Strategy from June-August. Later that month, her campaign started paying the firm again after taking a hiatus, federal disclosures show.

Many of the taxpayer-funded materials use the same fonts and similar photos of Porter as her campaign ads, and several share almost identical messages. But the materials contain just enough differences to avoid running afoul of ethics rules.

One taxpayer-funded ad depicts Porter looking thoughtful, with the caption: "Holding Oil Companies Accountable to Lower Gas Prices." It looks eerily close to a campaign ad, also featuring a thoughtful Porter, that reads: "Holding big banks and corporations accountable."

For direct mail, her office employed the Pivot Group, where Porter’s former campaign field director Emilie Pollack worked as an account executive.

One official mailer touts Porter’s efforts to "[tackle] Asian hate," a message echoed in an October Facebook campaign ad that also trumpeted her work against anti-Asian violence. Another taxpayer-funded flier announces that Porter is "lowering costs, cracking down on corporate price gouging, and putting Orange County families first," a theme repeated in her campaign ads.

Wong said the House-funded materials were meant to "keep constituents informed" about Porter’s efforts to "crack down on corporate abuse."

"Congresswoman Porter is proud of her work to hold Big Oil accountable," Wong said.

Porter’s interpretation of what counts as constituent information seems to be far more lax than that of her progressive allies. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, (D., Mass.) used office funds for just one mailer in 2022, a postcard listing constituent services and earmarks Pressley secured. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) devoted mailers to information about town halls and the coronavirus.