Capitol Alert

Political watchdog launches probe into California Democratic Party over Jerry Brown donations

California Democratic Party chair John Burton, right, speaks with gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown during the party’s state convention in 2010 in Los Angeles.
California Democratic Party chair John Burton, right, speaks with gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown during the party’s state convention in 2010 in Los Angeles. Sacramento Bee file

The state’s political ethics commission is launching an investigation into the California Democratic Party after an advocacy group alleged the party acted as a middleman to funnel donations from oil and energy companies to Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014 re-election campaign.

The Fair Political Practices Commission informed Consumer Watchdog of its investigation of the group’s allegations Friday. The group issued a report in August alleging that energy companies donated $4.4 million to the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party gave $4.7 million to Brown’s re-election between 2011 and 2014.

Consumer Watchdog said many of the donations were timed around important decisions related to the industry.

“Hopefully this will shed some light on what looks like a backdoor laundry machine for energy company contributions and probably extends beyond the energy industry,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

The group has alleged that energy companies gave money to the party to give to Brown in an effort to skirt campaign contribution limits for candidates. It also argues that Brown, who has championed efforts to combat climate change, may not have wanted to be associated with funds from oil companies.

But Brown did accept contributions from oil and energy companies in that campaign, and the FPPC told Consumer Watchdog in a letter that it is not investigating the Democratic governor or any of the other parties listed in the advocacy group’s report.

In one instance, Consumer Watchdog’s report said Chevron donated $350,000 to the Democratic Party on Dec. 23, 2013, and the party gave Brown $300,000 a week later. Chevron donated the money three months after Brown signed a weaker version of Senate Bill 4, which regulates fracking, than previous versions of the bill, according to the group.

Then, in early January, Brown came out against an oil severance tax that Chevron had long opposed, the report said.

A spokesman for Brown declined to comment. As a policy, the FPPC does not comment on open investigations.

“We received the letter, we’re aware of it and we’ve been cooperating fully with the FPPC,” said Michael Soller, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party. Soller declined to comment further.

The state sets limits for the amount of money businesses, individuals and committees can give candidates. In the 2014 election cycle, a single donor could give no more than $54,400 to a candidate for governor.

Donors, though, can give an unlimited amount to parties, which don’t face donation limits. At the time, the party could give a maximum of $34,000 from each of its donors to a candidate’s campaign per year.

Consumer Watchdog has often clashed with Brown and called for investigations into other top Democratic officials in the past.

In late March, the group filed a complaint with the FPPC alleging that Nancy McFadden, the governor’s executive secretary, influenced energy-related legislation and appointments while holding stock in Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The agency said there was “insufficient evidence” to warrant an investigation into conflict of interest, but said it would look into “the apparent failure of Ms. McFadden to disclose required information about the status of her stock ownership in Pacific Gas and Electric.” At the time, the Governor’s Office called the allegations “totally baseless.”

The FPPC said Friday that inquiry is ongoing.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna Jim Miller contributed to this report.