Ethics commissioner’s blunder could turn watchdog into a partisan Democratic tool

Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, listens as lawmakers at the Capitol debate a measure to change the rules governing recall elections.
Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, listens as lawmakers at the Capitol debate a measure to change the rules governing recall elections. Associated Press

In March, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla appointed Brian Hatch to the Fair Political Practices Commission, the agency that interprets the Political Reform Act and enforces election law.

For 40 years, Hatch was a Capitol lobbyist for firefighters’ unions. There’s nothing wrong with lobbyists serving on the FPPC, so long as they embrace their role as watchdogs, and cease being advocates. Evidently, old habits die hard.

As detailed by The Sacramento Bee’s Taryn Luna, Hatch secretly met with a lawyer for Senate Democrats who is urging the commission to reverse a policy in a way that could benefit Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, as Newman fends off a recall orchestrated by the California Republican Party.

First, a word about Newman’s potential recall. It’s wrong-headed. Republicans claim they’re targeting Newman because he voted in favor of raising gasoline taxes to pay for road repairs. Newman cast a vote based on his conscience, something voters ought to applaud.

In reality, the recall has little to do with any single vote. The GOP failed to hold a Republican seat in the November 2016 election. With Newman’s victory, Democrats gained a super-majority in the Senate, and Republicans were pushed farther back on the back benches.

Naturally, Democrats want to defend Newman and hold onto their two-thirds majority. And so legislative Democrats are seeking the authority to donate unlimited sums to Newman’s campaign committee established to beat back the recall. For that, they need the Fair Political Practices Commission to reverse a rule.

In 2008, the FPCC concluded that legislators needed to abide by strict limits when donating to committees to defend against recalls. Back then, Republican Sen. Jeff Denham of Turlock was the target of a Democratic Party-inspired recall.

The FPPC said in 2008 that legislators could give no more than $3,600 to help Denham beat the recall. Now, with inflation, legislators seeking to help Newman can give $4,400. What was good or bad for Republican Denham should be the same for Democrat Newman.

Former lobbyist Hatch conferred with a Democratic lawyer, seemingly encouraging steps that could lead to the policy reversal that would benefit Newman. At Hatch’s urging, and over the objections of Fair Political Practices Commission Chair Jodi Remke, the commission is considering changing the rule at its meeting next week. The effort reeks of politics.

Commissioners are free to meet with advocates on policy matters. But if they have such meetings, they ought to disclose them publicly. They definitely should not become aligned with advocates of a particular policy.

In our view, the legislators’ argument makes some sense. Corporations, unions, billionaires and others all can give unlimited sums to Newman’s anti-recall committee. Indeed, the firefighters union that Hatch represented has donated $50,000 to Newman’s committee to beat back the recall. That’s perfectly legal. Perhaps legislators should be able to give unlimited sums, too.

But if legislators believe the Denham-Newman rule is unfair, they could pass legislation specifically stating that legislators can give unlimited sums to recall-related campaigns, or they could sue to invalidate the rule.

They should not use their clout to overturn a rule that served their purposes when they sought to recall Denham in 2008. And the FPPC should not permit itself to be used as a partisan tool.