Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Political watchdog takes a break

Fair Political Practices Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher in 2014.
Fair Political Practices Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher in 2014. rpench@sacbee.com

The watchdog seems to be taking a little nap. Or perhaps the politicians, lobbyists and consultants suddenly are on their best behavior.

In recent months, the Fair Political Practices Commission hasn’t been barking much. Its backlog has grown and enforcement actions and fines have fallen. Maybe the lull is temporary, an aberration that is the result of a changing of the guard.

Having solidified her team, FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2014, promises there will be large numbers of significant cases by the end of the year. They will involve money laundering, earmarking of contributions, and illegal coordination between candidates and supposedly independent campaign committees.

“You just wait. You’re going to be on the edge of your seat,” Remke said.

Great to hear. I can’t wait to see the results. But the bar is high.

Under Remke’s predecessors, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission became perhaps the most important watchdog agency in state government, and one of the most aggressive agencies of its type in the nation.

The commission smacked what former FPPC chairwoman Ann Ravel called the billionaire Koch brothers network for laundering $15 million in campaign money in 2012. The fine: $1 million.

The commission confronted one of the highest end consulting firms in town, California Strategies, and three partners who regularly contacted lawmakers but failed to register as lobbyists. The fine: $40,500.

It nailed one of the top lobbyists, Kevin Sloat, for hosting fundraisers at his home and skirting gift laws. Fine: $133,500. Along the way, the commission slapped numerous politicians with fines of thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars.

The momentum, at least that which is public, had slowed since the resignations early this year of the general counsel and veteran director of enforcement.

As of June, the enforcement division reported a backlog of 604 unresolved cases, up from a 430-case backlog in January and 372 cases in January 2013.

More disconcerting, in four meetings between March and June, the commission took 43 enforcement actions and imposed fines of $93,000. Compare that to the four prior meetings when the commission took 188 enforcement actions accounting for fines of $425,000.

In one recent case, the enforcement division bored in on state Sen. Tony Mendoza, a Democrat from Artesia, who bought a house in Sacramento at the height of the housing boom in 2006. In 2009, unable to pay the mortgage, he worked out a deal by which his accountant and others would take over payments and ultimately buy the place.

FPPC enforcers concluded Mendoza “significantly underreported the amount of gross income he received from the sale” of the house. But rather than fine him, the commission issued a warning letter, a stern talking-to.

Compare that wag of the finger to the approach taken in 2011 when the commission discovered that as Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa accepted tickets to Lakers and Dodgers games, the Oscars and other Hollywood events.

Villaraigosa failed to disclose that he took free tickets to the events in his city. But the commission concluded that oversight was “unintentional.” There was, however, nothing unintentional about the fine: $41,849.

Remke’s boss, Brown, has a complicated relationship with the Political Reform Act. He sponsored the 1974 initiative that created it, but lately questions whether the requirements have had much influence over the influence of money in politics.

Underscoring that skepticism, Brown vetoed legislation to increase disclosure last year, saying: “Proper disclosure, as already provided by law, should be sufficient to guard against undue influence.”

Evidently taking that as a hint, Remke steers clear of legislation that would expand disclosure.

One such bill would require that consultants who help venders procure state contracts register as lobbyists and disclose aspects of their activities. Remke said the bill would add complexity to the already burdensome procurement system.

Another bill would require greater disclosure by nonprofit corporations that arrange for legislators’ junkets. The bill’s author, Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, said he was motivated by reports showing former California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey accepted $230,000 in travel, much of it funded by nonprofits. Remke views the measure as unnecessary; existing law would solve any abuses, she said.

The commission is backing one measure, Assembly Bill 594. That’s a bill to ease reporting requirements for minor campaigns that spend $2,000 or less. That’s the pared back version. As introduced, the bill sought to reduce public disclosure requirements for contributors.

As it is, donors who give $10,000 or more must file major donor statements which publicly list all the recipients of their donations. AB 594 sought to raise that threshold to $20,000. The major donor provision since has been amended out, but Remke said she supports raising it to $20,000. The commission voted 4-1 to support the bill.

“It is our role at the FPPC to promote disclosure,” said the lone dissenter, Eric S. Casher, a Bay Area attorney who is Attorney General Kamala Harris’ appointee to the commission.

Remke says she is skeptical of requiring more disclosure until the state makes better use of the information it now gathers. Toward that end, she said, by 2017, the state will require electronic filing of statements of economic interest submitted by 25,000 government officials. Once that happens, she said, the statements will be fully electronically searchable.

Again, great to hear. Meanwhile, I hope the watchdog bares its teeth. Unless, that is, politicians and lobbyists have seen the light.