SAN DIEGO - 10News has confirmed a review has been launched into U-T San Diego and allegations of political favoritism involving advertising rates.
This comes after an audit was released by 10News' media partner, the investigate journalism group inewsource. It points out big differences in ad rates depending on who the candidate was.
Last fall, the San Diego mayoral election was heating up. Then-candidate Bob Filner looked at the U-T San Diego and wondered.
"It never added up to us," said Filner, now San Diego mayor. "We knew there was something wrong. We saw the opponent having full page ads, yet it didn't match up with their expense report."
Months later, some possible answers are surfacing in the report from inewsource.
They audited political ads in the U-T San Diego from Labor Day to Election Day 2012 and then compared them to campaign finance records.
The audit revealed a group opposing Filner, San Diegans for Reform in Opposition to Bob Filner, paid the paper $25,000 for 16 full-page ads, which works out to about $1,560 per ad.
Former Rep. Brian Bilbray's campaign paid U-T San Diego $25,000 for 27 full-page ads, which translates into about $926 per ad.
The ad rates appear far cheaper than those offered to the Democratic-leaning Filner and Scott Peters, Bilbray's opponent. Both camps say the rates offered to them over the phone were between $8,000 and $10,000 per ad. They did not get the quote in writing. Because of the price, they declined to advertise.
U-T San Diego has been criticized by some for owner Doug Manchester's conservative beliefs intruding into the content, including front-page editorials.
"The Union-Tribune has always been a conservative leaning paper, but you don't want to cross a line so that your credibility is shredded with the broader public," said Carl Luna, a professor of political science at Mesa College.
In a statement to inewsource, U-T San Diego said, "All political ads were paid as part of a bundle option ... The bundle was available to all campaigns interested in advertising."
When asked if he was offered a bundle rate, Filner said, "As far as I know, no."
Peters' camp told 10News they were offered one bundle – three ads at $8,000 a piece – along with some banner ads on the U-T San Diego website.
Meanwhile, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission has now launched a review. While they declined to comment on the specific case, a spokesperson told 10News any "discounts" offered by a media group over $10,000 must be reported or it may face fines or even criminal charges. In this case, the audit revealed no such disclosures from U-T San Diego.
"I'd like to see them prosecuted for campaign violations … We have to put them on notice, so that next time, they'll think twice," said Filner. "Next time, it could influence an election and that was be disastrous for democracy."
According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, any campaigns or group that receives any in-kind donations like a discounted ad rate is also supposed to report it. In this case, the audit found no such disclosures.
10News reached out to the campaigns of Brian Bilbray and Filner's opponent Carl Demaio but did not get a call back.