Editorial: FPPC must limit donations to politicians' charities

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

Even in a political town like Sacramento, the numbers are eye-popping. Last year, more than $7.1 million in contributions flooded charities favored by Mayor Kevin Johnson and other Sacramento City Council members.

That compares to barely $500,000 in "behests" in 2011 and less than $16,000 in 2005. The 2012 total is three times more than payments solicited by all 120 members of the state Legislature combined, according to an analysis by The Bee's Ryan Lillis published on Sunday.

It shows just how much these unlimited donations from deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals have grown as a backdoor way to win favor with Sacramento's elected officials.

Our local politicians also have the dubious distinction of apparently being the only ones in California ever fined for running afoul of the only real rule governing these payments – reporting within 30 days those of $5,000 or more in a calendar year from the same source.

Last December, the state Fair Political Practices Commission penalized Johnson $37,500 – $1,500 for each of 25 violations of the reporting requirement on behests totaling more than $3.5 million and going back to 2009. He blamed an "unintentional administrative lapse."

The mayor is driving this surge of money, responsible for more than 90 percent of the total last year. Blocked from getting official "strong mayor" powers, he has gone outside City Hall and is using a network of nonprofits to push his agenda on school reform, the homeless, the green economy and other priorities.

Also, the FPPC issued a $3,000 fine to former Councilman Rob Fong for failing to report on time two $10,000 donations from Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 447, which represents some city workers, to Faith and Homeless Families, a nonprofit Fong founded.

Enforcing the disclosure requirements – highlighted by the FPPC as an increased area of focus in 2012 – is important. But it's not enough.

Chairwoman Ann Ravel and other commissioners need to take a hard look at restricting behests before they spin further out of control. Just as there are limits on contributions to elected officials while they're seeking office, there should be appropriate limits on donations to favored charities while they're serving.

The politicians and contributors say there's nothing untoward going on. The money is going to worthy causes, they say, and undoubtedly some of it is. But the potential for influence peddling can't be ignored.

Just consider the single biggest source of payments made at the behest of Sacramento politicians since 2009 – the Wal-Mart Foundation and a foundation started by the giant retailer's founding family.

Last year, the Walton Family Foundation donated $500,000 to an education reform group backed by Johnson, after the Wal-Mart Foundation gave $200,000 to other nonprofits affiliated with the mayor in 2009-11. The Wal-Mart Foundation also contributed $50,000 last year to a neighborhood nonprofit founded by Councilman Jay Schenirer, the second-largest recipient of behests.

It just so happens that Wal-Mart could be a big beneficiary of a move under way at City Hall to relax rules on big-box stores. Since taking effect in 2006, a city ordinance that requires superstores to pass a complex economic impact analysis has effectively blocked any from opening.

As chairman of the council's Law and Legislation Committee, Schenirer last month pushed to the full council a proposal to repeal the ordinance. He says the behests to WayUp Sacramento, a group focusing on helping young people in Oak Park, had no influence. The mayor's office says the same about his behests and says Johnson hasn't decided on the big-box changes yet.

There are plausible policy reasons for the council to change the rules. Yet given Wal-Mart's generosity, could you blame residents for wondering whether its contributions made a difference?

That points out one major problem with behests. It feeds the suspicion that those with money have more influence over elected officials than the rest of us. For all the good these donations might do, that's a steep price to pay.

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