When the California Fair Political Practices Commission levied hefty fines last week against three well-connected partners in a prominent Sacramento public affairs firm, it capped a string of high-profile cases that underscore the commission’s combative new approach under ethics chief Ann Ravel.
Created by voters at Jerry Brown’s urging nearly 40 years ago, the political watchdog agency historically has pursued investigations based on formal complaints. But under the chairmanship of Ravel, a Brown appointee, and her chief enforcer, Gary Winuk, the agency has become more proactive, significantly increasing the number of investigations it initiates.
The commission pursued California Strategies, the public affairs firm, and three of its consultants for lobbying without registering, assessing a combined fine of $40,500. Under Ravel, the FPPC also has taken on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Republican lawmakers Bill and Tom Berryhill, among others.
The agency’s boosters say it has chosen to concentrate its efforts, focusing on major transgressions by the biggest scofflaws instead of targeting less-significant offenses. Investigators, relying on informants and following up on news accounts, also established a proactive program covering disclosure of ballot measure committees, large contributions, slate mailers and pre-election candidate statements.
Last year, prosecutions of money laundering reached their highest level in commission history. In 2011, conflict-of-interest prosecutions climbed to a record number, while cases involving donors who give more than $10,000 a year and late contributions ticked down to a combined low of 3 percent. Those cases constituted nearly 70 percent of the agency’s enforcement activity in 2007.
“If you don’t have the ability and the gumption to actually enforce your laws that are significant and go to the heart of the trust prior to an election, then you might as well not be in business,” Ravel said.
Winuk estimates that the number of commission-initiated cases, virtually nonexistent before Ravel’s tenure, rose to 25 percent.
“The thing that’s changed whole cloth is the agency has been re-purposed back to what it’s supposed to do. We’re supposed to instill trust in government by being an independent watchdog of ethics of sorts,” Winuk said.
“When we’ve focused on more serious things, people stop doing (those things) when they know you’re watching. That, I think, has had a substantive impact. It’s motivated the staff. It’s attracted more talented people to want to come to the agency because they think we’re actually engaged in doing real things.”
Although criticism of the agency persists, it may have peaked shortly after Ravel took the reins and removed from the commission website an image of a massive gorilla clawing at a Capitol building awash in money. (She said it was in poor taste.) A former executive there said at the time he hoped the gorilla would not be replaced with a picture of an ostrich with its head in the sand.
“It made me very suspicious” of her approach, said Michael Salerno, a former FPPC executive director and professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “Those suspicions really have been set aside.”
The commission also stripped its website of investigation announcements, relaxed rules on politicians voting to appoint themselves to paid boards, and eased regulations on gifts to elected officials. For detractors, the approach was proof the commission was faltering in one of its core missions: holding politicians and other officials accountable and deterring them from running afoul of the Political Reform Act.
Dan Schnur, a former chair of the panel appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Ravel’s FPPC has been extraordinarily aggressive on enforcement yet remarkably tolerant of accepting the status quo in the transactional culture of the Capitol, where wining and dining is part of the political currency. It’s become almost a cliché that the most appalling things in politics are those that are completely legal, said Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“She may be benign in the way she regards some of the regulated community because that’s the community from which she comes,” he said, noting her background as a local and federal government attorney. “She believes that those she sees as bad actors should be punished, but that the broader culture is perfectly acceptable.”
By relaxing its focus on smaller infractions, the commission has created a more comfortable atmosphere for key donors and special interests, said Phillip Ung, a good-government lobbyist at California Common Cause. Ung said he’s noticed an uptick in warning letters rather than fines to powerful players in the regulated community, including the state Republican Party, that should know better than to skirt the rules.
The FPPC also has caused less stress and fewer headaches for incumbent politicians, Ung said.
“Before, the FPPC was vehemently hated by sitting Capitol politicians. I would say now they are just disliked,” he said. “Compared to previous years where we saw the FPPC as a strong, active watchdog, we really don’t know whether or not this FPPC is going to make us happy or let us down.”
Ravel, who has been nominated to the Federal Election Commission by President Barack Obama, said the commission decided to yank from its website in-progress investigations after it became clear they were unfairly tainting the people under investigation. She said the rules on gifts and conflicts were strengthened to close loopholes but also loosened to make them more reasonable. The issue, she said, comes down to public trust.
“While some people get upset about those transgressions – like if somebody took $10 more in gifts than they were entitled to – personally, I don’t think that’s the purpose of the act. The purpose of doing political reform is to prevent corruption. Frankly, I really do believe that if trust in government is so low that people think their legislators or any other public officials will be corrupted by having a dinner, then that’s a bigger problem with the political system.”
Supporters contend the victories on several major cases, increased community outreach and public disclosure efforts, counteract any criticism. Technological advances include releasing an app that allows users to search gifts to elected officials and paving the way for text-message contributions, possibly as soon as 2014.
The agency under Ravel, 64, also has received credit for moving quickly, particularly when an election is looming.
Last fall, the panel sought to discover the source of $11 million in contributions from a mysterious Arizona group to oppose Brown’s tax increase ballot measure and support a campaign finance initiative challenging the political dominance of labor unions. In November, the commission won a lawsuit forcing the group to reveal that the donor was from Virginia. The FPPC and state Attorney General Kamala Harris are still investigating to learn the names of the financial backers.
“The Arizona case showed Californians and it showed members of the public throughout the country the shell game that corporations can play when they want to spend money in politics,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “But it also presented a real opportunity for people to try to reform that influence. What people woke up to was the head of California’s watchdog was actually pushing for this before the case and literally was at the California Supreme Court at midnight filing briefs.”
Last month, the agency moved swiftly to unmask the mystery donor behind a signature-gathering effort to force a public vote on city financial aid for a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Under the legal scrutiny, Seattle investor Chris Hansen acknowledged contributing $100,000 to the petition drive.
“Some (cases) went on 10 years. They didn’t actually enforce them prior to an election,” Ravel said. “My view on this was, ‘We’ve got to enforce them. We’ve got to get the information to the public. Otherwise, what good is it?’”
Some of the commission’s recent activity has made believers of skeptics.
In the past two years, it fined Schwarzenegger $30,000 for misusing campaign funds, sanctioned former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa $21,000 for reporting violations, and leveled the largest-ever penalty of $111,500 against ex-Pinole Councilman David Cole for conflicts of interest. Johnson’s fine for failing to report millions of dollars in donations he sought for nonprofit groups was $37,500.
In the California Strategies case, settled Thursday, the commission found that three members of the firm – former Assemblyman Rusty Areias of Los Banos, Jason Kinney and Winston Hickox – violated state law by acting as lobbyists without registering and disclosing financial information.
Bob Stern, the commission’s first general counsel, who went on to serve as president of the Center for Government Studies, said the commission of late has been “excellent in terms of pursuing enforcement and electronic filings.”
Chuck Bell, a political attorney who served alongside Stern as co-chairman of Schnur’s advisory task force on the Political Reform Act, said “she’s brought together a bunch of great people to work there.”
“I give her a pretty good grade for making the effort to (clean up complex regulations) and consistently following it,” said Bell, whose clients include the state Republican Party. “But I also suspect she may also think she didn’t accomplish as much as she would have liked.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago