Ron Renagel was perusing a local newspaper when he saw an ad promoting Central Arizona College that featured a large picture of Pinal County Sheriff Christopher Vasquez, a graduate of the school. Renagel, a 60-year-old Gold Canyon resident and supporter of Florence Police Chief Bob Ingulli, Vasquez’s challenger in the race for sheriff, was outraged.
“I thought it was a political ad,” he said. “I got mad right away.”
The series of newspaper ads promoting the college also featured Ingulli, another graduate.
The ads raised the eyebrows of several Apache Junction residents who were worried that the taxpayer-paid promotions featuring the two candidates fell outside the boundaries of campaign finance law. The ads, published last month by the college and which appeared in at least two Apache Junction newspapers, ran during the current heated political race leading up to the Nov. 7 general election.
Pinal County residents said the timing of the marketing plan was a little fishy considering they ran during a campaign. Money spent on campaigns is regulated by state law, and contributors must report all expenses related to the race or a candidate.
Kenny Baker, a 69-year-old Ingulli supporter, said when he saw a Vasquez testimonial, he was shocked to see public funds used to promote a political candidate.
“The problem is that there’s tax dollars spent for an ad,” Baker said. “Tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on candidate ads. Period.”
But officials from the Pinal County Elections Department said the ads didn’t raise any concerns because they were intended to promote the college, not the candidates.
“It doesn’t seem to me that the ads were initiated by a campaign committee,” said Gilbert Hoyos, county elections director. “The college went out and recruited known people to push education.”
Officials from the Pinal County Attorney’s Office conducted a brief investigation on the matter and determined that no laws had been broken.
“There’s no election-related content in any of the ads,” said Chuck Teegarden, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office. “Subsequently, we do not believe there’s any kind of problem.”
Officials from the college said they don’t support either candidate. Graciela Figueroa, vice president of institutional advancement at the college, said the next ad in the series will feature a non-political graduate who went on to the engineering program at Arizona State University.
“What we were doing with the campaign is highlighting successful students who graduated from Central Arizona College,” she said. “We didn’t realize (Vasquez and Ingulli) were running for office.”
Figueroa said college officials approached the candidates nearly a year ago, when they developed the marketing plan that included the ads. Both candidates for sheriff confirmed that they had no political ties to the college and that they had been approached long before their campaigns started.
Hoyos said the only questionable element in the series of ads was the timing — just a few months before the election.