The front page of Bilal Mahmood's dual purpose website showing donate buttons for both campaigns.
Bilal Mahmood's dual purpose website advertising both his supervisor race and his Democratic Central County Committee race, which was linked in ads paid for by his DCCC campaign.

Bilal Mahmood, the former tech executive hoping to unseat District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, was accused today of violating San Francisco campaign-ethics laws and misappropriating funds.

This comes on the heels of a January incident in which he admitted to sending out a mailer from the wrong campaign committee — a significant ethical lapse, political consultants said. 

Mahmood was accused by the Labor and Working Families Slate of flouting strict campaign contribution limits on city supervisor races, which cap individual donations at $500 and prohibit corporate giving.

Mahmood, who is running for supervisor in November, is also running in Tuesday’s election for a seat on the local chapter of San Francisco’s Democratic Party, a contest that does not have any contribution limit and allows donations from any quarter.

He has raised more than $241,000 for his race for Democratic County Central Committee so far, almost all from donations over $500, with the majority in four-figure amounts.

Mahmood is accused of using those funds to benefit his supervisorial race. Today’s complaint, filed to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, alleges that he bought $137,500 worth of digital ads through his DCCC committee for a website in which he is soliciting donations for both races, including his supervisorial one.

Jessica Gutierrez, the political director with Mahmood’s DCCC campaign, said there was no violation, and that the campaign checked with its legal team before taking out the ads.

“It’s not in violation of anything,” she said, adding that the website has disclaimers for both DCCC and supervisor. “We ran this by legal. It’s, full stop, completely okay.”

Nicholas Saunders, an election attorney representing Mahmood, said that the spending was aboveboard because the website was clearly labeled for his DCCC campaign, and the digital ads did not benefit his separate supervisor race.

“If the question is whether the DCCC ads provided something of value to the supervisor campaign, the answer has to be ‘no,'” he said. 

But that wasn’t an opinion shared by Jim Sutton, a 30-year campaign finance attorney in San Francisco and the dean of this city’s campaign lawyers. He said there was a likely benefit to Mahmood’s supervisorial race from the digital ads taken out by his DCCC committee.

“I think it’s a problem,” Sutton said. “I certainly wouldn’t advise a client to do it.”

Sutton said the question is, “how much do those digital ads benefit the supervisor account?” A “direct benefit” was plausible, he said, “because the ads direct people to a website where they can make a contribution to his supervisor campaign.”

“From a legal perspective, it is no different than if the DCCC committee paid for a fundraising event for the supe campaign,” he added.

It is the latest of a mounting number of alleged ethical violations for Mahmood. Earlier this month, the Ethics Commission received another complaint after Mahmood admitted he mistakenly mailed flyers advertising his supervisor race with DCCC money. The complaint filed Monday also noted this previous violation. 

The Ethics Commission, per city law, did not divulge whether it was investigating the complaint.

The complaint was lodged by his political opponents, the Labor and Working Families Slate, a coalition of candidates hoping to retain progressive control of the DCCC. Mahmood is on the rival slate, the San Francisco Democrats for Change, which has outraised the progressives more than 3-1 and is backed by deep pocketed donors, many of them in tech.

The practice of using one’s Democratic County Central Committee campaign as a springboard for supervisor is not novel, and Mahmood is not alone in using the race to rake in unlimited funds and increase his name recognition.

District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, who is running for re-election in November, has pulled in $50,000 for her DCCC race. Marjan Philhour, her opponent, has raised $218,000 for her DCCC race. And District 9 candidate Trevor Chandler has raised $55,000 for his DCCC race. The vast majority of giving for all three candidates was from donations above $500.

But donations like these are a “huge problem” in local campaigns, according to Pat Ford, the director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission. Because the candidates can raise unlimited funds in the DCCC race, regulated at the state level, they effectively skirt the city’s own limits.

Candidates can take money fundraised for the DCCC race and use those funds to plaster their name and face across the city, winning name recognition.

Jim Ross, a longtime Bay Area political consultant, said that the problem with using DCCC money for name recognition was not just about the letter of the law. Candidates “taking huge donations from very rich people” creates the appearance of being bought-and-paid-for. “He’s now tied to them and part of them.”

And, Ross said, officials should appear unimpeachable and hold themselves to “a higher standard” to avoid even the appearance of violating the law. 

“There’s been so much corruption and scandal in San Francisco … it feels to people that [politicians] are skating by,” he said. “It feels like they’re finding loopholes or ways to avoid the goals of the law.”

Sutton, for his part, agreed with Ford and Ross. The practice of using the DCCC race as a “soft money vehicle” to fundraise gobs of money is growing in San Francisco, but he said it was clearly a contravention of the spirit of the law — and that candidates should tread more lightly.

“It’s so clearly a loophole, it behooves candidates to be extra careful and not have one single website for both campaigns,” he said. “When it’s unlimited and corporate money versus $500 and no corporate money, they should be a little bit more careful than this.”

This piece has been updated to include comments from Bilal Mahmood’s attorney and a rejoinder from campaign finance attorney Jim Sutton.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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  1. I guess when you have no ideas and stand for nothing (see Mahmood’s recent non-answer to Mission Local about Prop E), big money is the only way to go.

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  2. And there is a third request to Ethics to investigate a “ride along” incident with SFFD and first responders. Mahmood signed a binding agreement stating that understood he was only permitted to ride if he agreed not to post comments or photos on social media of the event. There are strict campaign laws that bar current city employees (like SFFD and SFPD) from posing or being photographed with political candidates. Point being: uniformed officers are prohibited from giving the appearance that they or their departments endorse a particular candidate. Mahmood signed the release saying he understood and would not make posts, but then went on to post pics of himself posing with uniformed firefighters. Mahmood frequently refers to his intern work in the Obama admin; I’ll bet he adhered to strict protocols there. So why flout the rules when running for elected office?

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  3. I don’t care about this.

    I do care about the fact that he’s a mealy-mouthed coward who wouldn’t take a position on Prop E when Mission Local asked him. Prop E is the most significant and controversial item on the ballot. If Mahmood can’t tell us how he stands on that, how can we trust him on any other issue?

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  4. Where’s the focus?
    Here we have the problem with running for the DCCC and running for elected office at the same time, it all gets too muddy. DCCC is the body that endorses candidates. I imagine if Mahmood is elected to one it’s to support his position in the other.

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