California’s political ethics watchdog says it found no evidence Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis broke the law by soliciting contributions from labor unions to furnish her office.
The decision comes in response to a complaint the California Republican Party filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission last month, arguing Kounalakis improperly used charitable donations to buy office furniture and paint.
“Based on a review of the complaint and documentation provided, the Enforcement Division found insufficient evidence of a violation of the Political Reform Act, and will not pursue an enforcement action,” the commission wrote in a Wednesday letter to the Republican party and Kounalakis’ lawyer.
Kounalakis has raised more than $300,000 for the Committee to Support the Office of the Lt. Governor, mostly from labor unions.
Kounalakis reported the contributions as charitable donations made to an outside organization on her behalf, a type of donation known as a behested payment. Usually politicians use donations like those to raise money for charities, or to pay for inauguration celebrations.
The Kounalakis committee used the funds to fund her inauguration and furnish her office, which saved taxpayers money, said Lloyd Levine, who runs the committee.
In its complaint, the Republican Party had argued Kounalakis should have reported the payments as donations to an officeholder committee or gifts.
Politicians have to report gifts and officeholder committee donations at a lower threshold than behested payments, which officials only need to report if they exceed $5,000. Gifts and officeholder committee donations are also subject to contribution limits, while behested payments are not.
Kounalakis spokesman Steven Maviglio said the complaint was a political attack against the lieutenant governor, who is a Democrat.
“As the state’s ethics watchdog had confirmed, this was a baseless attack and designed to distract from the California Republican Party’s lockstep support of the Trump agenda,” Maviglio said in a statement.
The decision indicates the Fair Political Practices Commission doesn’t see politicians using so-called behested payments for government functions like office furniture as illegal, said former FPPC President Bob Stern, who helped write the Political Reform Act.
In response, California Republican Party director Cynthia Bryant said she hopes to convince a lawmaker to push to change the law next year.
“This is a gigantic loophole,” she said. “It’s bad policy and bad precedent and now they’re going to just keep doing it unless we can shut it down.”
Stern said although the payments might not technically violate the law, he thinks behested payments should only be used for charitable groups that are completely separate from politicians and aren’t helping with government functions like buying office furniture.
As an example of what he sees as an appropriate use of behested payments, Stern noted that former Gov. Jerry Brown steered millions of dollars in behested payments to support Oakland charter schools.
FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said he could not comment on the commission’s decision.