Jodi Remke was appointed California’s top political watchdog this spring as a series of scandals unfolded in the state Capitol – bribery charges against two legislators, a perjury conviction against a third and a six-figure fine against a local lobbyist who routinely hosted politicians at his house over fine wines and cigars.
As Remke takes the mantle as chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, however, she says she’s mostly focused on beating bureaucracy at the agency.
Her predecessor, Ann Ravel, brought national attention to the sometimes-obscure commission that polices California’s lobbying and campaign finance laws. She imposed a record-setting $1 million fine on two nonprofit groups she said were affiliated with the Koch brothers’ network for a violation stemming from 2012 contributions to California ballot measure campaigns.
Remke said she wants to continue Ravel’s work going after serious violations of the state’s Political Reform Act. But she has her own vision for the position, too, one that involves increasing the FPPC’s use of technology and streamlining the requirements involved for officials to follow the law.
“Sometimes you step in and look at what we’re doing, and it is so complicated. It is so confusing,” Remke said. “Sometimes you have to say to yourself: Why? Why are we doing it this way? There has got to be an easier way.”
Remke, a former State Bar judge, is continuing the work Ravel began to pare down the FPPC’s eight-step process to determine if an official has a conflict of interest in making government decisions. And she wants to use technology to simplify processing the thousands of reports the commission receives every year from public officials disclosing their economic interests.
“We open the envelope, we stamp it ‘received,’ we enter the data, we photocopy it, we then have an Excel spreadsheet that identifies which ones we have. Then we have to send it out to be prepared for (online) posting,” Remke said with more than a hint of incredulity.
Switching to an electronic filing system is a top priority for Remke, who heads into the new year hoping Gov. Jerry Brown will reappoint her to a four-year term as chair. She landed the job this spring when Brown tapped her to complete the remainder of Ravel’s term after she departed for the Federal Election Commission. Remke’s term is up at the end of January.
How successful she’ll be at improving the FPPC’s use of technology will depend in part on how well she can negotiate for more funding from the state. Remke said she doesn’t know how much it would cost to implement her vision for an electronic filing system for the thousands of local and state officials who file annual disclosures of their economic interests. She said the project is in the planning stages and she hopes to send state budget planners a funding proposal in the spring.
Good-government groups have noticed that Remke’s focus so far has been largely behind the scenes.
“We’ve had several previous (commission chairs) that were more looking to use the post either as a bully pulpit or to position themselves as reformers,” said Derek Cressman, a political activist who has worked for Common Cause and ran a losing bid this year as a Democratic candidate for secretary of state.
“I haven’t gotten that sense from this chair. I think she’s taken a lower profile and is more focused on administering the existing set of rules and regulations that we have.”
Remke issued a guardedly supportive statement when Brown vetoed several political reform bills in September, including measures to require more campaign finance disclosure, reduce the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials and prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts of golf rounds, spa treatments and event tickets. Brown’s veto message said the bills would needlessly make existing regulations more complex, a theme Remke has echoed.
At a commission meeting in August, Remke said she was concerned about a bill to require more disclosure on political advertising. Senate Bill 52, dubbed the “Disclose Act” by its supporters, ultimately stalled in the Legislature.
“We have to avoid the push for what I would say is negligible change under the guise of reform. I think people often forget that tweaking small things that only result in more complexity with little benefit is a lot of work behind the scenes,” Remke said in an interview.
“It’s nice to say I have a reform bill. But I believe you really need to say, first of all, what is the problem? Is this bill going to address the problem? And is it the best way to address the problem? Again, avoid unnecessary complexities with little benefit.”
Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign that sponsored the bill, said he looked forward to working with Remke in the coming year on another version of the legislation.
“She expressed concerns … that maybe (the earlier draft of the bill created) too much for the commission to do. We disagreed, but I can understand her staff feeling that way about it,” Lange said.
Remke joined the FPPC after spending 14 years as a judge for the State Bar, where she ruled on attorney discipline cases.
“Being a State Bar judge is a lower-profile, more insular position – you’re one of a number of people as opposed to the person leading a state agency. None of which is to say that she lacks the proper credentials. She was still in the business of regulating bad behavior,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who sits on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
Ravel raised the profile of the FPPC, Levinson said, by taking on well-known lobbyists and political operations.
“Every chair has their own style, and I don’t think Chair Remke is as interested in being high profile.”
Title: Chair, California Fair Political Practices Commission
Résumé highlight: Presiding judge of the California State Bar court from 2006 to 2014, where she ruled over attorney discipline cases.
Chief goal in 2015: Increasing the use of technology to provide the public more information by improving the FPPC’s website and moving to an online filing system for officials to disclose their economic interests.
Biggest challenge in 2015: Persuading lawmakers to give the FPPC enough money to make significant technological upgrades.