Campaign finance and disclosure laws were put in place to limit the influence of money in politics and give the public information about who is financing campaigns. Reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt and events such as Watergate spurred these laws. They are important to democracy.
For six years, I devoted myself to these laws as the chief of enforcement at the Fair Political Practices Commission. As important as these rules are, it is just as important that they not be used as a campaign tool to unjustifiably smear another candidate during an election.
When I started at the FPPC in 2009, I noticed this occurring regularly and chose to combat it by quickly dismissing complaints with no merit. I noticed that people very quickly stopped using the FPPC as a campaign tool for frivolous complaints. Angelique Ashby’s complaint in the Sacramento mayoral race is one such complaint.
I am not endorsing, supporting or working for any Sacramento mayoral candidate. I don’t live in the city of Sacramento. But I do care about the integrity of campaign finance reform and that such laws be used for the public benefit, not for campaign stunts.
The Steinberg campaign complied with the law when it transferred funds from his lieutenant governor’s campaign committee to his mayoral committee. You can support the law that allows this or criticize the law that allows him to do this, but the bottom line is that it is currently allowed.
Ashby’s legal brief uses the FPPC’s case against Dean Florez in 2013 to support her contentions. I prosecuted that case. The two cases couldn’t be any more different.
In that case, Florez took hundreds of thousand of dollars of his campaign funds and used it for his personal gain. That is what made that case so serious and why I sought and the FPPC imposed a record fine.
Last year, I worked closely with the city of Sacramento as an independent expert to help city officials craft their campaign and governmental ethics ordinances. Hopefully the new ordinances strengthening campaign rules and creating an ethics commission will be acted upon soon; a lot of time has passed since the announcement that the ordinances would be developed.
When the new ordinances are released, they should be based on the principle that campaigns should be decided on the merits of the experience, background, qualifications and policy positions of candidates.
Campaign finance reform and disclosure should be a tool for the public benefit that limits the flow of campaign money and reveals donors who contributed to campaigns. Using the campaign finance laws for unjustified campaign advantage should be avoided.
Gary Winuk, former chief of enforcement at the Fair Political Practices Commission, is a campaign and government ethics law professor at McGeorge School of Law and an attorney at Kauffman Legal Group. Contact him at Gwinuk@kaufmanlegalgroup.com.