Richie Ross, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant and lobbyist, has agreed to pay a $5,000 fine and write off $160,000 he’s owed for violating California’s lobbying laws, according to a proposed settlement he reached with the staff of the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The violation stems from Ross’ dual roles as both a campaign consultant who helps legislative candidates get elected and as a lobbyist who is paid by outside interests to sway legislators’ votes. While state law allows a person to hold both positions, Ross ran into trouble because of his practice of carrying debt for successful candidates who agreed to pay him a “win bonus.”
California’s Political Reform Act forbids lobbyists from placing public officials under personal obligation, including financial debt. The FPPC’s action against Ross marks the first time the state’s political watchdog has enforced the rule. The settlement says Ross’ “violations are potentially very serious because of the opportunity for improper influence inherent in the situation where a state legislator owes a large debt to a lobbyist.”
In the two cases cited in the settlement, Ross agreed that he did not make sufficient efforts to collect the money legislators owed him for his work on their campaigns. Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, has owed Ross $100,000 since February 2009, the settlement says. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has owed Ross $60,000 since 2011, the agreement says. That means Lara and Fong have been indebted to a lobbyist nearly the entire time they’ve been in office. Neither of the legislators is charged with any wrongdoing in this case, and Ross agreed to waive the debts they owe him as part of the settlement with the FPPC.
The law’s “provisions prohibiting certain activities by lobbyists are aimed at preventing lobbyists from influencing state officials through means other than legitimate advocacy,” says the settlement. “A situation where a lobbyist holds the legal right to collect a significant debt from a legislator, or take no action on the debt, creates an obvious opportunity for improper influence by the lobbyist over the legislator, although there is no evidence before us that such improper influence occurred here.”
The settlement says Ross believed he was acting legally based on FPPC opinions from 1977 and 2006. But in the 2006 case, the settlement says, Ross was actively seeking repayment of the debt, while in the cases of Fong and Lara he was not.
Ross and Lara did not return calls from The Sacramento Bee on Monday, and Fong declined to comment.
Ross’ lobbying clients include the United Farm Workers, the AFSCME labor union and an association for attorneys who file workers’ compensation cases. A decade ago, Ross caused a dust-up in the Capitol when he cursed at two staff members whose bosses had not voted for bills supported by one of his lobbying clients. The incident led to bills being introduced to prohibit political consultants from lobbying the officials they help elect, but those measures were never signed into law.
The FPPC meets Nov. 20 to consider the settlement with Ross.
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.