Politics & Government

In political scandal, good government advocates see opening for ethics, campaign finance changes

When the Legislature returns next week from spring break, it will pick up with the drudgery of its shortcomings right where it left off, with ethics training in the upper house.

Before the recess, two Sacramento lobbying firms paid record fines for violating lobbying rules, and the Senate suspended three Democratic members involved in separate criminal cases. Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of lying about his residence when he ran for office, and Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee are accused of corruption and, in Yee’s case, conspiracy to illegally traffic guns.

Public confidence in the Legislature has fallen off, and an abundance of soul searching at the Capitol has sprung up about what to do about it.

“On the one hand ... no ethics class is going to teach somebody not to gun-run or take money in an envelope,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “On the other hand, I think it is an appropriate moment in time to take stock and look at all that we do, and how we do it.”

This focus of attention on basic questions of appropriate behavior has taken over conversations on the golf course, at the back of Senate chambers and among good-government groups that sense an opportunity, with increased calls for changes to campaign finance, disclosure and ethics rules.

“A crisis in trust is what I would call it,” said Jim Mayer of the government reform group California Forward. “We can argue about where the line is, but it seems like we’re so far past it, that’s not the argument to be making. The argument is what do we do about it?”

Earlier this month, Mayer’s group proposed a series of measures as part of a “path toward trust” for the Legislature. It included updating the state’s antiquated campaign and lobbyist disclosure system, increasing the availability of public officials’ statements of economic interest online, requiring legislation to be in print for at least three days before a vote and creating an independent ethics office in the Legislature.

Lawmakers have come forward with similar proposals. Sen. Richard Roth, a Riverside Democrat and chairman of the Senate Legislative Ethics Committee, has floated the idea of a Senate ethics ombudsman. Other lawmakers proposed bills banning campaign fundraising parties at the homes of registered lobbyists and prohibiting campaign fundraising for 100 days before the end of session, a period when lawmakers traditionally act on hundreds of bills.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, a proponent of one of the ethics bill packages, said at a hearing this month, “I am just trying to be responsive to the public and show that we as an institution can and will do better in the wake of the public distrust.”

Many of the measures lawmakers are weighing attempt to restrict the prevalence of fundraising in Sacramento or to improve disclosure of what money is raised. With U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting campaign finance restrictions on First Amendment free-speech grounds, “disclosure is one of the only tools left on the table for reformers,” said Paul Ryan of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

These conversations run hot and cold in states around the country, often in reaction to scandal and often without success. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently backed off an effort to install a system of public financing for campaigns in his state, settling for a pilot program.

“It’s an endless situation,” said Michael Josephson, an ethics scholar who conducted ethics training for California lawmakers in the 1990s. “Every state legislature acts like they really care and are so unwilling to impose things that would really limit them, and the public frankly universally sort of shrugs and sort of expects it. I can’t think of any state that has made any meaningful, terrific reforms, so I’m skeptical of the sincerity.”

Yee, who would later be accused of accepting thousands of dollars in campaign money from an undercover FBI agent, suggested in a December interview with Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative publication, that public financing of campaigns could help diminish the outsized role of money in politics.

“I think there’s that old adage about power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – it’s just human nature,” Yee said.

In a state grappling with scandal, Josephson said, lawmakers might establish an ethics panel but then fight about who should be on it and what rules it should pursue. Proposals get gutted or are forgotten, and little changes.

“I’ve seen it up close, and it just is very sad,” he said.

Josephson said passage of significant changes will require a “really strong leader who really is going to push it through.”

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown capitalized on the Watergate scandal and distrust in government by campaigning for the state’s Political Reform Act in 1974, the first time he was elected governor. But this year, he has largely avoided interjecting himself in the Legislature’s handling of its members’ controversies. The Democratic governor called for Wright, Calderon and Yee to resign, but he has not proposed any legislation to address what he called “a tragedy for the Senate, for politics in general.”

Both Yee and Calderon have pleaded not guilty.

Robert Stern, who co-authored the Political Reform Act, said California law is sufficient to address bribery and corruption but that “the big problem, in my mind, is campaign money and the link of campaign money to at least access, if not decision making.”

Stern said banning fundraising at the end of a legislative session “makes a lot of sense.”

“Ideally, if I could wave a magic wand and get rid of Supreme Court decisions, I would say, ‘No fundraising by legislators ... no gifts, no campaign money,’ ” Stern said. “But I can’t wave the magic wand.”

Still, Stern said, “This is the first time in a long time that I’ve heard key legislators and key candidates really talking about stopping some of the fundraising, and that’s all to the good.”

Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader, proposed legislation involving restrictions on campaign contributions around state budget deadlines when he was in the Assembly. But Huff, of Diamond Bar, said, “I couldn’t get my bills out of committee, so I finally gave up on it.”

In retrospect, Huff said trying to limit campaign contributions to a candidate might only increase the amount of money funneled into independent expenditure committees, “and that’s really unhealthy.”

“It seems like wherever you look, there is a simple solution that is not a real solution, and I can’t say that even in my years here I’ve come up with a solution that would solve all the problems,” he said.

At California Forward, Mayer said his group’s proposals are not a “magic formula,” only “some reasonable solutions that in the past have not been politically viable.”

Following the suspension of the three senators, he said the Legislature appears this year to be more receptive to such ideas.

“They’re at this rather critical moment,” Mayer said. The Legislature in 2014 is “either going to be defined by the indictments, or it’s going to be defined by their response.”

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