Ann Ravel steps down from FEC in letter urging Trump to embrace campaign finance reform

Ann Ravel says Federal Election Commission is dysfunctional

Ann Ravel, a member of the Federal Election Commission, spoke with Dan Morain of The Sacramento Bee on May 16, 2016 about the agency's lack of enforcement.
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Ann Ravel, a member of the Federal Election Commission, spoke with Dan Morain of The Sacramento Bee on May 16, 2016 about the agency's lack of enforcement.

Ann Ravel, formerly California’s chief elections watchdog, has resigned her seat on the Federal Election Commission.

In a letter to President Donald Trump dated Sunday, Ravel called on the president to do something to increase transparency in elections and reduce the influence of “dark money.”

“I respectfully urge you to prioritize campaign finance reform to remedy the significant problems identified during the last election cycle,” Ravel wrote, noting Trump’s own criticism of the campaign finance system during his race for president. “Disclosure laws need to be strengthened; the mistaken jurisprudence of Citizens United reexamined; public financing of candidates ought to be expanded to reduce reliance on the wealthy; and commissioners who will carry out the mandates of the law should be appointed to the expired terms at the FEC.”

Ravel was appointed to the FEC by President Barack Obama in 2013 along with Republican Lee Goodman. Prior to joining the FEC, Ravel, an attorney, served as chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

The letter doesn’t specify a reason for her resignation, but Ravel told the New York Times that she felt she could be more effective on the outside and had remained in her post because Obama asked her to stay until after the November election.

Trump has the power to appoint her replacement, though the candidate cannot be a registered Republican. The law prohibits more than three members of the six-member FEC being from the same political party.

Since joining the commission, Ravel has been outspoken about what she describes as gridlock on the panel. Her critiques landed her an appearance on “The Daily Show” during which the irrelevance of the commission was compared to male nipples.

Earlier this month, her office produced a report titled “Dysfunction and Deadlock: The Enforcement Crisis at the Federal Election Commission Reveals the Unlikelihood of Draining the Swamp.” The report accuses three members of the FEC of allowing major violations to be swept under the rug.

A bloc of three commissioners “routinely thwarts, obstructs, and delays action on the very campaign finance laws its members were appointed to administer,” the report reads.

Ravel’s report contends that gridlock has worsened: In 2006, commissioners deadlocked on 2.9 percent of substantive votes on matters under review. In 2016, the report says 30 percent of substantive votes ended in a deadlock.

The document also cites reductions in fines, failure to enact rules forcing transparency post-Citizens United and refusal to investigate major alleged violations.

In 2006, the FEC assessed more than $5.5 million in fines, according to the report. In 2016, the commission leveled $595,425 in fines. The report further points out that Ravel’s old agency, California’s FPPC, imposed $900,000 worth of fines last year.

It identifies 18 cases “in which the agency failed to require meaningful accountability from individuals, corporations, labor unions and dark money groups.”

As head of the FPPC, Ravel received attention for focusing on major offenses rather than less-significant transgressions and pursuing cases quickly. In 2012, she sued to reveal the donors behind an $11 million donation from an Arizona group aimed at blocking Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hike proposition and supporting an anti-union proposition.

Most recently, she was mentioned as a possible contender for the post of state attorney general after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in November. Brown ended up nominating Rep. Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed to the post last month.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison