FPPC chair has work cut out to find new enforcer

Gary Winuk, the chief of enforcement, speaks in front of the Fair Political Practices Commission meeting in September 2013.
Gary Winuk, the chief of enforcement, speaks in front of the Fair Political Practices Commission meeting in September 2013. The Sacramento Bee

California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has earned a well-deserved reputation for being an aggressive and nonpartisan enforcer of the 1974 Political Reform Act.

So it is more than a little disconcerting that two top officials have resigned in recent weeks, after Gov. Jerry Brown reappointed the FPPC’s chairwoman, Jodi Remke, to a new four-year term.

The latest to announce his departure is the chief of enforcement, Gary Winuk, a public servant who can be proud of the pivotal role he and his team played in several complex and high-profile cases during his five years on the job.

Winuk helped lead the investigation into Republican-controlled nonprofits that were part of what the FPPC called the billionaire Koch brothers’ campaign network. Under former FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, the commission fined the entities $1 million after concluding they tried to hide $15 million in contributions to initiative campaigns in 2012.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Laurel Rosenhall reported Tuesday, FPPC prosecutions rose from about 100 cases in 2009 to nearly 350 cases last year. Under Winuk, the enforcement unit went after politicians who didn’t report gifts, campaigns that laundered money, and lobbyists who failed to report their clients.

Winuk’s departure follows the resignation of Zackery P. Morazzini, who was the commission’s general counsel. People leave jobs all the time for a variety of reasons. Morazzini got another job and a raise. Winuk, however, is leaving without another job.

In a statement, Remke said the commission would be conducting a search in the “upcoming months.” The notion that it might take months to fill the position raises the unhappy prospect that the enforcement function could become rudderless.

“I understand his desire to move on,” Remke said in an interview, adding that it’s not unusual for top executives to depart when new leadership takes over. The assistant head of enforcement, Galena West, will become acting chief.

“Enforcement is not about any one person. He has built a strong team,” Remke said of Winuk.

The departures come while the Capitol remains under a cloud. Former Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee likely will go on trial later this year on federal corruption charges.

Ever larger sums of money grease the business of politics. Interests spent $578 million to lobby the legislative and executive branches in the 2013-14 legislative session, up from $504 million five years earlier.

Strong FPPC chairs have used the law to fine state and local miscreants who try to hide their campaign contributions, avoid registering as lobbyists, and skirt restrictions against giving donations.

In one particularly noteworthy instance, Karen Getman, a chair during Gov. Gray Davis’ administration, successfully sued to force Indian tribes that run casinos to comply with state campaign finance law.

Remke, who succeeded Ravel in 2014, came to the FPPC from the State Bar where she had been a judge handling lawyer discipline cases. She has kept a lower profile than recent predecessors. That is fine, though some of her stated goals – upgrading the technology and reducing red tape – don’t seem particularly visionary.

Now, her No. 1 goal needs to be to find the best possible replacement for an enforcement chief who will be tough to replace, and continue the tradition established by the strong chairs who came before her.