Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has been stretching the boundaries of “behests” – donations solicited by politicians for their pet charities.
Now, the state’s political watchdog has a chance to use his case to chew on the issues raised by big-dollar behests and consider some sensible guidelines.
The Fair Political Practices Commission said Tuesday that it is investigating a complaint that focuses on contributions from retail giant Wal-Mart and the founding family’s foundation to education nonprofits tied to the mayor, and on Johnson’s support for loosening the city’s rules for big-box stores.
These contributions from corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals support groups that are doing good works in their communities. But all the flowing cash can give at least the appearance of favoritism. Behests are barely regulated. The amount of donations is unlimited; elected officials only have to report within 30 days any payments of $5,000 or more from the same source in a calendar year.
Johnson ran afoul of that rule – an oversight he blamed on a clerical lapse. Last December, the FPPC fined him $37,500 – $1,500 for each of 25 violations on reporting behests totaling more than $3.5 million and going back to 2009.
Stymied from winning greater official powers as mayor, Johnson has cultivated an unofficial network of nonprofit groups to champion his agenda on education reform, the “green” economy and other causes. These groups are being largely financed through payments made at the mayor’s behest. Last year, he solicited an astounding $6.5 million in behests, almost three times as much as all 120 members of the Legislature combined.
Wal-Mart’s foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have been the biggest single source of the mayor’s behests since 2009; last year, they donated $700,000 to education and other nonprofits backed by Johnson, The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported in June.
The FPPC is looking into a complaint filed last month by Eric Sunderland, a local Democratic activist and volunteer for a campaign critical of Wal-Mart’s employment practices. His allegations center on three questions:
• Did the behests to Johnson’s school nonprofit create a conflict of interest when he voted last month to ease the restrictions on superstores like Wal-Mart?
• Did Johnson receive gifts in excess of state limits because Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, which received $500,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, paid nearly $23,000 in travel expenses last year for the mayor?
• Did the Walton Family Foundation’s $8 million pledge earlier this year to StudentsFirst, a school reform group founded by Johnson’s wife, Michelle Rhee, lead to a financial conflict for the mayor in the superstore ordinance vote?
Johnson’s office says there is no link between the behests and his views on big-box stores. The mayor’s spokesman says Johnson is cooperating with the inquiry and is confident he will be cleared of any impropriety.
Maybe so, but all these issues are ripe for the FPPC to explore. Johnson’s case presents an opportunity for the commission and Legislature to decide whether any changes are needed in state law on behests before they spin out of control.