Capitol Alert

Ethics commissioner had secret meetings with Democrats over recall election rules

A commissioner of California’s political watchdog agency met secretly with a lawyer working for Senate Democrats while advocating for changes to campaign finance law that would help retain the Democrat’s supermajority in the state Senate, The Bee has learned.

Commissioner Brian Hatch, a Democrat and former lobbyist for the firefighters union, met privately, talked on the phone and exchanged text messages with the lawyer as the Fair Political Practices Commission considered flipping a longstanding legal interpretation of campaign finance law to favor Sen. Josh Newman in the fight to retain his seat.

The conversations between Hatch and Richard Rios, an attorney representing Senate Democrats, were revealed in documents obtained by The Bee through a public records request.

Senate Democrats have asked the FPPC to reverse its position on contribution limits in recall elections to protect Newman, a Fullerton Democrat fighting a Republican-led effort to recall him. If the agency approves the change next week, state candidates would be able to give unlimited sums of money to Newman to help protect the Democrat’s supermajority.

While FPPC commissioners are prohibited from speaking privately with people involved in enforcement cases, other situations allow more flexibility. Commissioners are allowed to meet or discuss the agency’s legal opinion on state law and rule-making decisions, but such one-on-one meetings are unusual and are supposed to be disclosed. Hatch did not disclose his conversations.

No other commissioner reported private meetings with outside groups in response to the records request.

“As far as I know, it would be uncommon for there to be such meetings,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the FPPC and prior member of the Federal Election Commission.

Hatch was appointed to the FPPC by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, in March. He said he did his own research on the issue of contribution limits to recall candidates and determined that the agency’s opinion was wrong before he spoke to Rios.

“I had my mind made up without talking to anyone,” Hatch said Tuesday.

Hatch said Chair Jodi Remke and the staff members put pressure on the individual commissioners “to leave it alone.” He felt he was receiving biased information about the issue from the FPPC staff without the perspective of groups on both sides, which prompted him to seek more information, he said. Hatch accused the agency of purposely avoiding action on Rios’ request.

“You bet I wanted to talk to him,” Hatch said of Rios. “He’s getting bumped here and bumped there and as a result not being very effective. Yes, I wanted to meet him and I wanted to suggest that he be a little more aggressive and that I would do anything I can to get the wrong righted.”

The agency’s manual for new commissioners says they are “strongly urged” to share ex parte communications with fellow commissioners and the public “at the meeting where the matter is discussed.” Hatch did not publicly disclose his conversations with Rios during the FPPC meetings in June or July. During monthly meetings, the commission does not usually ask its members to report ex parte communications as they go through the agenda.

Hatch said he is not required by law to disclose his private talks.

“I see no need for it,” Hatch said. “All I’m doing is handing someone over a bat to beat me with, and I’m not going to do that.”

In a statement, Remke said the commission is reviewing its procedures “to ensure we are adhering to best practices as we move forward, so the integrity of the Commission is not in question, and the FPPC’s mission to serve the public is ultimately enhanced.”

Rios did not return calls Tuesday.

“It’s perfectly appropriate for attorneys to meet and discuss important matters with commissioners before those matters are decided upon,” said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for Senate Democrats. “There’s nothing unusual about that.”

Records show that Rios and Hatch met several days before the commission discussed the lawyer’s request at a public meeting for the first time on June 29.

Rios sent Hatch an email on June 19 asking if Hatch was available to meet in Southern California to talk about the Senate Democrats’ request. Records reveal that Rios did not request private meetings in writing with any of the other commissioners.

Hatch met with Rios on June 21 and spoke with him by phone again on June 26, according to a travel reimbursement log he provided to commission staff members.

Rios and Hatch exchanged text messages before Rios spoke at the commission hearing. During the June FPPC meeting Hatch advocated for the agency to speed up its process to change the rule.

Rios and Hatch also exchanged text messages July 17 and July 19.

“Have you seen the FPPC memo on the opinion request?” Rios wrote in a text message on July 19. “Hardly a fair and balanced approach. I thought you asked them to prepare the issue briefing both sides of the issue?”

“Yes I did...more work to do,” Hatch wrote in response one minute later.

Hatch contends that he did not know he was texting Rios.

“I had this text message from just a phone number,” Hatch said. “I glanced at it, and I was at a meeting of the homeowners association. I answered it, and we went back and forth. I thought it was a commissioner. I was embarrassed to say the least.”

Thomas Hiltachk, a political lawyer who has appeared before the FPPC for decades, also said such private contacts are unusual. His firm has been hired by the GOP proponents of the Newman recall and have spoken against the proposed rule change.

Hiltachk said he’s met with FPPC commissioners over the years after they are appointed to get to know them. He hasn’t tried to lobby them on issues before the commission, he said.

“It has the appearance of being coordinated,” Hiltachk said. “Nothing surprises me at all in connection with what the Senate Democrats are doing to protect Josh Newman and prevent his recall at any and all costs.”

Republicans are attempting to recall Newman over his support for the gasoline tax increase and to eliminate the party’s two-thirds majority in the state Legislature.

Since 2002 the FPPC has operated under the legal interpretation that state candidates are subject to contribution limits when they give money to a candidate-controlled recall committee. During past recalls, the political party at risk of losing their seat has argued that the FPPC’s opinion is flawed. Lawyers from both political parties have said there should be no limit to how much money a recall candidate can accept from other state candidates.

This time around, Senate Democrats appear on the verge of successfully convincing the state’s campaign watchdog that they’ve been wrong for 15 years. If the change goes through as expected, state candidates could give Newman more than the $4,400 maximum in place for routine elections.

At the July meeting, the commission voted 3-1 to grant a new opinion on the matter. Hatch and two Republicans, Maria Audero and Allison Hayward, voted in support. Remke, a Democrat, spoke against the decision.

Remke said it was the “wrong time and the wrong venue” for the commission to change its opinion and “such a reversal could be considered political, potentially impacting the public’s perception of the integrity of the commission.”

Hatch called the chair’s statement an “effort to intimidate” the other commissioners.

“This is supposed to be a free country, and God help us if someone like me can’t stand up for the public,” Hatch said.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna