By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.”