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Argus-Courier cartoonist suspended for campaign work


Steve Rustad, freelance editorial cartoonist for the Argus-Courier, has been suspended by the Petaluma newspaper for creating the artwork used in four independent campaign mailers opposing Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt in the 2nd District Sonoma County supervisors race.

John Burns, publisher of the Argus-Courier, said Thursday that Rustad’s cartoons would be “put on a hiatus” for an “undetermined” period, starting today.

Rustad’s work for the campaign against Torliatt violated the newspaper’s ethics policy, Burns said.

“We take the ethics policy very seriously,” Burns said in an interview Thursday.

The Argus-Courier, like The Press Democrat, is owned by the New York Times Co. Both have ethics policies forbidding involvement in political or business activities that create a real or apparent conflict of interest for the newspaper. Those policies, which are included in standard contracts signed by freelancers, also prohibit freelancers from accepting assignments from current or potential news sources.

Burns said he was not aware of Rustad’s role in the artwork until a concerned reader called his office a day or two after the election. Burns said he called Rustad on Monday and the cartoonist acknowledged he was paid to create the comic book-style drawings used in the mailers.

Rustad told Burns that he was unaware of the limits on freelancers, the publisher said.

“We don’t feel that he did anything intentionally wrong,” Burns said. He added that “no newspaper can go out and monitor every single contract with every single freelancer. In this situation, because it was related to a political candidate that we were covering, we made it clear that we can’t do this kind of thing.”

Rustad did not return numerous phone messages left at his business and at his home. Burns said Rustad is paid a “modest sum” for each of his cartoons, which have won two statewide awards since he began with the Argus-Courier in 2005.

The mailers in question were funded by an independent expenditure committee, Citizens For Transportation Funding, which spent nearly $90,000 to defeat Torliatt. The group supported David Rabbitt, the single-term Petaluma city councilman who won the election.

The four mailers, titled the “Perils of Pamela,” were drawn in the style of a comic book cover. They featured allegations that Torliatt had mismanaged taxpayer money and delayed commercial development that would have provided jobs and helped Petaluma’s nearly drained city coffers.

During the campaign, Torliatt and her supporters said the materials were inaccurate and misled voters about her 14-year voting record on the City Council.

At the time, some alleged that Rustad was the artist behind the mailers. The drawings were not signed, but appeared to be similar to Rustad’s cartoons in the Argus-Courier.

Campaign finance records for Citizens for Transportation Funding did not list Rustad as a contractor, showing only a $3,925 payment for artwork.

Bob Bone, the group’s treasurer, refused this week to disclose the name of the artist behind the work. The group’s largest donors, including the Sonoma County Alliance, development interests and the Operating Engineers Local 3, also backed Rabbitt in the 2nd District race.

Campaign records show Rustad’s graphics and advertising firm, Rustad Marketing, was an artwork contractor for a separate independent expenditure group that opposed Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin and Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi in their bids for re-election.

Burns said he was not aware of that work and that Rustad didn’t mention it when they talked. He said that work would not appear to violate the Argus-Courier’s ethics policies or contract terms because it was in a race outside of the paper’s coverage area.

“It’s not our intent to try and shut down his business,” said Burns.

Torliatt was out of the country on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party, which backed Torliatt, Gorin and Jacobi in the election, said he was disturbed “to see this type of ethics violation creep into the local level.”

In addition to the suspension of the cartoons, Gale said Rustad’s blog should be taken down from the Argus-Courier’s website.

“He (Rustad) has been a consistent critic in editorial cartoons and on his blog of the same individuals that he was paid to attack,” said Gale. “It seems inappropriate to me that the Argus-Courier would allow that blog to continue in light of the ethics violations.”

Burns said he had no immediate plans to take down the blog.

“We’re certainly having a very serious conversation (with Rustad),” he said. “We’re hoping that some day we can have Steve come back.”

View the “Perils of Pamela” mailers (click to enlarge)

41 Responses to “Argus-Courier cartoonist suspended for campaign work”

  1. conflictofinterest says:

    Efren Carrillo works for whom? Is Aimi Dutra among his constituents? I think not, since she lives south of Sonoma County. It’s obvious why David Rabbitt has not once stood up before a Dutra-related Board of Supervisors meeting to voice his opposition to approval of Aimi Dutra-Krause’s asphalt plant application. Apparently, he didn’t want to upset Aimi who attended all the hearings and whose “Citizens for Transportation Funding” paid for the worst of the low down and dirty hit pieces against Torliatt.

    The Press is supposed to print the truth after all. Lies of omission are still lies. Ted Appel was aware of the hit pieces early on, and yet, John Burns of the Argus Courier feigns ignorance, saying he didn’t know about them until a couple of days after the election.

    The PD knew. The AC knew, but they didn’t do their job. However, when it came to a week-old sanctuary story, Chris Smith stated that the PD did their job and reported it. Reporting negatively about Torliatt is fair game, but exposing Carrillo and Rabbitt isn’t?

    But this is just one example of the bias of both newspapers and why we have canceled our subscriptions. One of these days the SF Chronicle will cover the Sonoma County, and the PD and AC will be history.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 9

  2. Josh Stevens says:


    What’s the difference between a Torliatt supporter,and a newborn puppy?


    The newborn puppy stops whining after the first week or so.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 9

  3. be smart says:

    Dwayne Marke – “REALITY” says: November 16, 2010 at 11:15 am It’s a free country, so what if Carrillo and Dutra were talking at Rabbitt’s party?

    Well, it’s not a “free country” here in South Sonoma County – where big money helped buy and pay for the hit-pieces and attended the Rabbitt campaign party.

    Carrillo is a seated 5th District County Supervisor. Maybe no one told him – it’s not appropriate to go to a campaign election night party and “party” with an applicant who is bringing a project before a Board on which you sit.

    And there’s nothing hysterical about calling things the way they are — male chauvinist so-called cartoon hit pieces, misinformation, and racism – all revealed through the last minute attempts of the Rabbitt campaign to get those last votes they needed for “their” candidate.

    Carrillo’s comments and positions were qusetionable before – now, the real Efren is revealed. With his friend, Aimi Dutra.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13

  4. Dwayne Marke - "REALITY" says:

    It’s a free country, so what if Carrillo and Dutra were talking at Rabbitt’s party? She was probably thanking him for doing the right thing and approving a legal project on its merits – not making up lies and hysterically screaming about the sky falling.
    It now appears the hysterical anti-Dutra crowd has pivoted to spreading conspiracy theories about “destroyed photos” and a secret cabal of chauvinistic bigots in the south county pulling all the strings.
    But I guess if you don’t want to face reality that public-trough Pam is out of a job, you’ve got to find ways to fill your time.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 10

  5. @enquiring minds says:

    We’re still curious to know why PD reporter Brett Wilkison and photographer Kent Porter made no mention and apparently took photos of Efren Carrillo and Aimi Dutra chatting it up at Rabbitt’s Election Night Party? Was it feigned ignorance or did they both turn a blind eye to their attendance?

    We’d like do see the photos if they haven’t already been destroyed. Does the Argus Courier have photos? Should we inquire at the New York Times Co.?

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 8

  6. Lifelong supporter says:

    @Mighty Midget, perhaps if you read the article, it clearly states Pam was out of the country on vacation. And BTW, Veteran’s Day was on Thursday and not Tuesday. Maybe you too were not in attendance.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 6

  7. Mighty Midget says:

    Lets get one thing straight. Pam’s left, communistic cronies can continue to cry all they want over how unfairly she was treated. Rustad’s pieces are part of what make AMERICA great, free speech. This is foreign to Torliatt, Glass, Renee and Barrett because they only converse with people who see things their way.
    As for Mayor Torliatt, all you need to know about her patriotism was demonstrated by her absence at the Veterans Parade this past Tuesday. This was a day to honor those who served and serve our country and the Mayor, outgoing or not, defeated or not should have been in attendance. Torliatt is never absent from Petaluma events in which she gets too wave and smile at people. Her lack of being in the parade in defeat to honor our great VETS and current SOLDIERS only shows the kind of AMERICAN she is.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 19

  8. Paul Smith says:

    to Be Smart: You don’t have to be a chauvinist to dislike Torliatt’s policies. Her positions make it easy to criticize her in cartoons, editorials and mailers without regard to gender.
    Go ahead and blame her loss on imaginary women haters, right-wing conservatives, bigoted voters and the like. A good conspiracy is much more entertaining than dealing with the truth.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 12

  9. be smart says:

    Rustad’s wife’s blog – defending her husband.

    Umm, he is a chauvinistic and biased “cartoonist” whose “cartoons” have been published in the Argus-Courier week after week.

    The reporting on local Petaluma government by both the Argus-Courier and Press Democrat is usually biased, incomplete and promotes the right wing conservative agenda.

    I’ve been in meetings, for example, and then read the so-called news story about the meeting in either the PD or the Argus-Courier – - and the real truth is the stories are reported with such a bias and are so incomplete – compared to what actually happens – it’s truly amazing – and not in a good way.

    And Steve Rustad’s so-called cartoons are both chauvinistic, targeted Pam Torliatt over and over and over – and appears, since his wife says he friends with the “publisher and editor” of the Argus-Courier – he was encouraged to continue his bias and his chauvinism and inaccurate portrayal of facts…

    All the way to the IEC funded by the Sonoma County Alliance and others for the truly unbelievable Perils of Pamela series of hit pieces in the recent political campaign.

    Everyone who saw the pieces knew immediately Rustad was the so-called cartoonist.

    My question is — hmm — if it was clear with #1 of the 4-series hit-piece mailing – why wasn’t Rustad suspended immediately? Why did they wait until AFTER the entire election and AFTER the entire 4-series of hit pieces reached mailboxes.

    Sounds like Rustad and John Burns shared coffee or something and John Burns said, Steve, you did a great job for all of us – but now we’ll have to suspend you for a little while because some say you violated a few editorial policies and ethics policies. But hang on, we’ll bring you back as soon as we can.

    Did someone say fire the editorial staff?

    Now, people outside South Sonoma County know the bigoted, chauvinistic mentality with which people who are sincere and care about the community and our environment and the future of Petaluma must cope. You have to be here to really understand.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 15

  10. Confused says:

    From Rustad’s wife…


    She makes perfect sense. As I stated in a earlier post on this forum, interesting article, yet suspicious.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 9

  11. Pete says:

    The Argus Courier should do the right thing and make the suspension permanent.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 20

  12. Olivia says:

    John Burns feigns ignorance about anything that doesn’t jibe with his/the “Citizens’” agenda.

    Thumb up 22 Thumb down 8

  13. Wow and they had the nerve to call Torliatt a “job killer” So much for the Sonoma County Business Alliance and their developer friends’ expertise at ‘creating’ jobs! It looks like they can get people fired… not hired….and finally: an ethical lapse from the Rabbitt campaign?! Shocker! Who saw that coming?!
    Ps. If you can’t see the conflict involved in an editorial staffer getting paid to work for a campaign while simultaneously working for pay as an “objective editorial cartoonist” then you need a remedial con law class. This is not about free speech…or censorship. You don’t have a right to be paid by a partisan campaign and then try to pass yourself of as an unbiased newspaper staffer. No wonder the IE for Rabbitt declined to name the vendor they used on their FPPC report. They knew it was wrong….

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 24

  14. Kent Stokely says:

    Argus-Courier Editorial Page: John Burns, Writer. Steve Rustad, Illustrator.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  15. Mkaty says:

    If Rustad had drawn the cartoons for the paper, would they have been printed? Isn’t an editorial cartoonist supposed to express opinions? Can he or she express only the editorial opinion of the publication? Why isn’t a freelancer, uh “free” to express whatever opinion they wish in whatever manner they wish as long as they are not on the clock for the Argus or the NYT?

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 18

  16. bridge to petaluma says:

    This cartoonist did the same kind of anti-Torliatt cartoons in the Argus for several years. The political hit piece mailers/cartoons were so easy to recognize because his drawings of Torliatt look exactly the same as the ones in the paper.

    I cancelled my long time subscription to the Argus several weeks ago about the same time the cartoon mailers were received. I don’t miss the Argus. Still awaiting my $14.00 refund.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 20

  17. squidsquad says:

    John Burns, publisher of the Argus-Courier, said Thursday that Rustad’s cartoons would be “put on a hiatus” for an “undetermined” period, starting today.

    Sounds like the CARTOONS were “on hiatus” but not Rustad. How can you “fire” or “suspend” someone who is not an employee?

    Looks like Rustad got…burned.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 17

  18. Zena Neato says:

    As a free-lancer –not a staff member– and skilled artist whose pen could fillet a Rabbitt as quickly as Ms. Torliatt, it seems to me that Mr. Rustad should be free to take or not to take assignments from any employer able to pay him what he’s worth. Furthermore, AC freelance pay –on a different scale by an order of magnitude from its sister paper, the Press Democrat– is insufficient to justify turning other, more lucrative work away. Funnily enough the Publisher’s long-time support of pro-business interests that pay ad revenue (Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Association, Visitor’s Bureau, Rotary Club) says more about the myth editorial “neutrality’ than the rapping this starving artist was given on his ink-stained knuckles. Readers would do well to monitor the AC’s pages and its contributors more closely for “appearance of a conflict of interest”. In this tiny town, everyone is a potential news source.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 9

  19. It’s about time.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 19

  20. Rick Edwards says:

    “…a real or apparent conflict of interest for the newspaper.”? It strikes me that Steve Rustad was right in step with the local papers. The Press Democrat, in particular, had no compunction about running inaccurate attack pieces on Pam Torliatt. Ethics?! Don’t get me started!!!

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 14

  21. Eric Newman says:

    Forget the cartoonist: fire the editorial staff

    It is laughable that the Argus/PD settled on the work of a cartoonist to demonstrate their concern for editorial integrity. The PD and Argus both served as the PR arm of the Chanber/Alliance campaign to overturn the progressive majorities on the board of Supervisors, and the Petaluma and Santa Rosa city council campaigns. As was noted many times on this site, the PD/Argus had their thumb firmly on the scale every step of the way. Now they have succeeded in getting their favored growth machine candidates in place, suddenly they have an attack of conscience and fire the…cartoonist?!

    That does not even begin to describe the depth of journalistic malfeasnace on the part of these papers. There is a campaign underway to alert the parent company, The New York Times, that their franchises in Sonoma County have fallen far from the standards of journalistic integrity that the parent company claims for its brand.

    I encourage readers who are disgusted with the blatant misrepresentations and undisguised match-fixing by the local affiliates to contact the publisher of the NYT corporation at publisher@nytimes.com.

    They need to do a wholesale housecleaning to recovery their claim to be the regional paper of record. Throwing the clown under the bus should not distract us from the real scandal at the PD/Argus.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 23

  22. Fred Levin says:

    Press ethics? Are you kidding me? The “progressive” leaning editorial staff of both New York Times owned local newspapers can push their agenda on readers, but a very good political cartoonist, who is trying to make a few extra bucks, is censored for presenting another side of the story? Where is the ethics?

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 24

  23. Graeme Wellington says:

    They have an ethics policy against their cartoonists creating attack ads, yet the Press Democrat sees nothing unethical in re-printing the complete attack ads in the newspaper under the pretext that it is “news” that a political attack ad was distributed.

    Please. How dumb is the Press Democrat audience anyway? Or are the editors the dumb ones here?

    Thumb up 37 Thumb down 11

  24. Sastra says:

    Just realized that it doesn’t feel safe to post comments using my real name. Sad. This town was so warm and open when I moved here around 2000. We could really get things done, revitalized the downtown, had hopes for growing into a model small city with a great new general plan. Now? It’s in a drawer.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 7

  25. Brian says:

    I was disappointed that a fine artist such as Mr. Rustad was involved in the ugliest, dirtiest political campaign year I have ever seen in Petaluma. BOTH sides of the supervisor race really lowered the bar for civilized debate in the county with their respective mail campaigns.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 31

  26. ForPT says:

    I will be happy when PD reporter Wilkison gets suspended. His biased reporting is equal to Rustad’s unethical cartoons.

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 25

  27. Really Big Fish says:

    The audacity of the NYT and AC publisher to claim they have”ethic” policies…hah hah hah hah hah hah had.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 10

  28. Michelle says:

    I guess the truth hurts I think that horrible that they suspened him it is not ethics it is censorship.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 19

  29. John Hudson says:

    There is nothing “progressive” about Pam Torliatt. She is the political ally of Codding Enterprises. She, along with the Sonoma County Alliance, The Press Democrat, and Jake MacKenzie share responsibility for persuading voters to buy into what is now being called the SMART debacle. She supported amnesty for illegal aliens and wanted to set Sonoma County up as being a refuge for illegals regardless of the cost to the people who live here, the federal immigration laws, and the burden on our public schools.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 27

  30. Lionel Gambill says:

    Dirty politics is nothing new in Petaluma. I remember the vicious hit piece against Jane Hamilton many years ago. We have a pretty good idea who the sleazes were behind that one, and can only wonder which of them are at it this time. It was surely not a surprise; merely disgusting.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 10

  31. I think that it is interesting that many of the comments in support of Steve Rustad and David Rabbitt are as gloating and mean as Rabbitt’s campaign literature was.

    Looks like we are in for more “kinder and gentler” as in Bush non-speak.

    I am also tired of the use of the word WHINE when referring to people who disagree with you. That is not a respectful discussion. Let us argue on the issues, and not form opinions based on who can make the cleverest nasty comments.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 24

  32. Jeff Albada says:

    I defy Mr. Burns from admitting he would have fired an employee who did satire cartoons for Pamela Torliatt against here opponent. The leftist bias of his newspaper caused me to cease to purchase his newspaper long ago. I hope pam worked as hard to remove her signs in an enviromental fashion with diligence like she has worked against honest business efforts that would help reinvigorate our economy.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 26

  33. be smart says:

    Rustad represents the face of chauvinisim and ignorance – and info-spinning for the good ole boys.

    Perhaps others in Sonoma Co. will better understand the unfortunate events here in recent days – and really understand what Rustad’s favored candidate represented and how dirty the hit piece campaign was – and, unfortunately, how many South County voters were unconscious and just accepted the lies at face value, and voted out of fear and possibly bigotry.

    And that is what will be represented now in the 2nd District Supervisor’s office.

    Keeping the good ole boys happy.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 51 Thumb down 58

  34. Political Scientist says:

    “The Argus-Courier, like The Press Democrat, is owned by the New York Times Co. Both have ethics policies forbidding involvement in political or business activities”

    So when does the entirety of the PD staff get suspended?

    Thumb up 77 Thumb down 14

  35. Paul Smith says:

    So what. In a few days this story will be forgotten and progressives will still be crying in their Kashi over Torliatt’s loss.

    Rustad may be suspended temporarily, but the sheer joy of Torliatt’s failure can be enjoyed forever.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 56 Thumb down 54

  36. Confused says:

    Interesting article, yet suspicious. The Argus has used Steve Rustad numerous times to slam Pam yet this is beyond the newspapers ethics? I expect to see this article published on Petaluma 360 today as well as a headline article in the paper next Thursday.

    Thumb up 54 Thumb down 6

  37. be smart says:

    Good. Make it permanent.

    Karl Rove will probably hire him.

    Thumb up 47 Thumb down 33

  38. Stu says:

    Hmm…might the “concerned reader” have sounded suspiciously like Stephen Gale? Pam and her crew are ridiculous! Between Gale and Lisa Maldonado the only “whine” in the south County will come from sour grapes!

    Thumb up 48 Thumb down 43

  39. Another Unhappy Democrat says:

    Stephen Gale are you talking about ethical violations because an artist did work for campaigns that successfully defeated your candidates? So much for the first amendment and free enterprise, i guess… I’m sure your ex-ACLU cohort from the NBLC Lisa Maldonado would tell you that Mr. Rustad has an inalienable human right to free speech, or maybe not since her group backed the same poor slate of candidates as the SoCo Dems did.

    The Sanctuary piece was too much, the Perils of Pamela was unethical…what’s next, voter fraud allegations? maybe the gender card? or how about this…stop the liberal whining and crying, accept that your extreme liberal views no long represent the voters of this county, and please…PLEASE…SHUT UP.

    But I would like to thank the Press Democrat for bringing even more mileage to the very successful anti-Pam IEC. I just can’t stop laughing…

    Oh…and Stephen…the Republican Party in Sonoma County just gained another member. If you keep it up, you may just lose this county as a democrat strong hold.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 59 Thumb down 50

  40. David says:

    “Steve Rustad, freelance editorial cartoonist for the Argus-Courier,”

    If the newspaper can control what he does like this, it seems to me that he in an employee of the newspaper and not a freelancer.

    Thumb up 54 Thumb down 15

  41. It’s about time for Rustad to be ousted, though it may be temporary. The paper let its progressive cartoonist, Rich Benbrook, go years ago along with any pretext of being other than reactionary.

    Thumb up 48 Thumb down 34

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