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DA candidate Kamala Harris has been concerned the state recall race would eclipse her efforts to get her name out, but for now, it may help distract voters from controversy over her campaign spending. Richard DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said the recall could keep the issue below the radar of most voters. For Harris, he said it’s “better now, when it’s just part of the noise of the recall campaign, than later.” But Harris’ two opponents, DA Terence Hallinan and Bill Fazio, have pounced on allegations that she illegally broke a pledge to abide by a voluntary spending cap. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Hallinan criticized her actions in an editorial meeting, and Fazio wrote Harris a scathing letter Thursday, which he also sent to local press. Harris is scrambling to do damage control. After Fazio announced Wednesday that he would hold a press conference on the topic Thursday, Harris announced a press conference of her own Thursday morning to publicly and personally take responsibility for what she calls unintentional mistakes by her campaign. “I first learned of my campaign’s missteps just over a week ago,” she said, maintaining that she and her campaign believed a January pledge she signed to abide by the caps was nullified when the city’s campaign finance law was amended in July. Harris is now telling voters, on her Web site and on all new literature, that due to errors by her campaign, the city’s voter’s guide incorrectly says she accepted the caps. While she initially agreed to the caps, the law governing campaign spending was amended in July, and she decided to reject the caps. She admits she did not adequately serve notice of the change, but she and her opponents disagree about whether the amendment to the law gave her the opportunity to change her mind. She’s recently retained longtime local political attorney James Sutton to represent her in the matter and hired him as her new campaign treasurer to oversee future filings. The storm broke last week when Harris filed statements with the Ethics Commission that simultaneously announced she is rejecting the voluntary spending caps and that she had already spent more than the $211,000 limit for the November race. Medicinal marijuana advocate Wayne Justmann, who said he is endorsing Hallinan but not working on his campaign, said he lodged a complaint Sept. 26 against Harris with the Ethics Commission, the city attorney’s office and district attorney’s office. Among four alleged violations of campaign laws, Justmann charges that Harris broke her pledge to abide by the spending cap. Harris declined to address Justmann’s allegations point by point Thursday, saying she had just seen the complaint for the first time. Two Harris campaign workers showed up for Fazio’s press conference, but Fazio called it off just as it was to begin; Kevin Geary, one of his campaign staff, said a “personal emergency” had come up, but offered no further details. Fazio sent a letter he’d written to Harris to the local press Thursday, a missive claiming her actions had damaged the integrity of the election. Fazio called on Harris to spend $127,000 mailing voters “correct information regarding your violating the spending cap,” and to stop spending money. Hallinan’s campaign has also jumped into the fray. “These are not errors, these are misdemeanors punishable by a $5,000 fine and a six-month jail term,” said Hallinan campaign spokesman Marc O’Hara. Hallinan told the Chronicle‘s editorial board that he referred Justmann’s complaint to the attorney general because investigating it himself would be a conflict of interest, the newspaper reported Wednesday. Opinions are mixed among political observers on whether Harris’ spending cap snafu will derail her campaign. “I don’t see her misstep as significant,” said Joseph Russoniello, dean of the San Francisco Law School and a Harris supporter. “I think that it’s technical, and I hope that’s the way most people view it. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level � of impugning her integrity.” Time will tell whether Harris can move past the spending limit issue with voters, and on to her own issues, such as attacks on the incumbent’s handling of domestic violence prosecutions. “It’ll be interesting to see how she deals with it, and how effective her rivals are in keeping it in the spotlight and making her squirm,” said DeLeon, the S.F. State political science professor. If voters get the sense her opponents are hammering too hard on Harris in order to deflect attention from other issues, their efforts could boomerang and damage them in voters’ minds, DeLeon said. “From a political standpoint it’s kind of tough, because do you hit someone and give her more name recognition?” said Michael Sweet, a litigator and political lawyer at Winston & Strawn, who ran for supervisor in 2002 and is supporting Fazio. It looks like the Ethics Commission could decide whether Harris will face any legal consequences as soon as today at a special meeting. Violations of the campaign finance law can prompt penalties from fines to jail time.

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