By hammering three heavyweight consultants, the California Fair Political Practices Commission this week helped promote fair play and transparency in their otherwise opaque business.
The FPPC proposes to fine three Democratic consultants and their firm, California Strategies, $40,500 for failing to register as lobbyists, even though they sought to influence an agency and lawmakers on behalf of their clients.
By taking the action, the commission put on notice all consultants who act like lobbyists but don’t take the step required of lobbyists to register with the secretary of state, and make quarterly filings disclosing their clients, and the legislation, issues and agencies they seek to influence.
As The Bee’s Laurel Rosenhall reported, the commission has tackled the pervasive practice of shadow lobbying by former politicians and high-level staff members who consult for private industry without disclosing themselves as lobbyists.
By insisting they act as consultants or legal counselors, they contend that they don’t talk to policymakers on behalf of clients, but rather provide advice, as if lobbyists don’t offer strategic advice, too.
There are many reasons that clients would prefer not to hire lobbyists. One is that clients and lobbyists must identify themselves in public filings, and disclose the amounts they pay and collect in lobby fees.
Another is that fees paid to consultants can be counted as business expenses that can be deducted from taxes, while lobbying expenses cannot be written off.
The settlement involves the firm itself, California Strategies, which for years has set the standard for consultants. Its founder, Bob White, was chief of staff to Gov. Pete Wilson and is among the most influential figures in Sacramento.
The members of the firm singled out in the complaint include former San Joaquin Valley legislator Rusty Areias, who was Gov. Gray Davis’ state parks director; Winston Hickox, who was Davis’ secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency; and Jason Kinney, a Davis speechwriter who worked for former Sen. Don Perata and is one of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s consultants.
The proposed settlement said Hickox lobbied his former agency, while Kinney and Areias contacted legislators. To their credit, the three agreed to settle the matter, rather than fight, and register when they conduct lobbying.
By filing the case, the commission under Chairwoman Ann Ravel showed that it doesn’t shy away from fining Democrats, who have relationships with influential Democratic lawmakers and with Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed Ravel.
President Barack Obama has nominated Ravel to serve on the Federal Election Commission. Her independence ought to serve her and the country well, if the U.S. Senate confirms her, as it should.
Influencing policymakers is as old as the republic. Citizens and corporations have a fundamental First Amendment right petition their government. But as the FPPC made clear by its action, the public has a right to know who tries to sway policymakers, and the amount that moneyed interests spend trying to get their way.