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Politics & Policy

Spending on political billboard ads violated SF election laws, watchdog says

Billboard ads support Ellen Lee Zhou in 2019 | Courtesy photo

San Francisco’s political campaign watchdog has accused a campaign operative of misconduct involving Ellen Lee Zhou’s 2019 mayoral run, according to a recent report.

The San Francisco Ethics Commission accused Paul Allen Taylor—who worked on Zhou’s campaign and coordinated controversial billboard ads—of accepting and making contributions over the legal limit, withholding required information and failing to register as a campaign consultant.

Taylor, 70, is a retired businessman living in the East Bay and a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018. In a phone interview, he denied the accusations and slammed the Ethics Commission’s effort as a “witch hunt.”

“I have not violated any campaign rules,” he said. “They're on a hunting expedition trying to bully me.”

The controversy centered on a $10,000 contribution that Chinese American businesswoman Margaret Liu made to the Southern California-based Asian American Freedom Political Action Committee, which used the funds for billboard ads.

The report said that Taylor “facilitated coordination” between the political action committee and Zhou’s campaign, allowing both entities to circumvent applicable contribution and disclosure requirements. 

City laws prohibit individuals from contributing more than $500 in one race and defined the Asian American Freedom Political Action Committee’s $10,000 expenditure as “an in-kind contribution” to the campaign.

Taylor rejected the claims, saying he has no involvement with the political action committee, and he had no official title in Zhou’s campaign in 2019, because he was just helping a friend. While Taylor confirmed he did receive a check from Zhou, he insisted that it was simply to defray part of the cost of the billboards’ design.

“I am strictly a volunteer,” Taylor said. “There’s no profit. I lost money.”

San Francisco leaders held a press conference on Oct. 21, 2019, to protest an Ellen Zhou for Mayor billboard on the corner of Dore and Howard streets that they said is racist. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Zhou’s campaign ran a series of billboard ads in 2019, one of which depicted Mayor London Breed in a cartoon and sparked racism controversy before it was taken down. 

Taylor condemned the Ethics Commission for disregarding Zhou’s rights.

Zhou said Wednesday afternoon that none of the accusations were true, and said she has no paid employee for her campaign.

The case will be heard in future Ethics Commission meetings, although a date hasn’t been scheduled. According to the City Charter, if the Ethics Commission determined that the violations occurred, the maximum penalty Taylor could face is $187,000.

Han Li can be reached at