FPPC Backs Bipartisan Legislation Aimed at Curbing Its Openness
When it was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission was lauded as the most visible symbol of a new spirit of government openness.
A dozen years later, the commission has found itself in the odd position of backing legislation that would close its own investigative files to the public.
The measure would not affect such records as financial disclosure statements, in which elected officials are required to list their backers and their own financial holdings. It would, however, prevent the public and press from examining information developed by the commission while it is weighing allegations involving elected officials and lobbyists.
The proposal, which faces its first legislative hearing today in the Senate, was hastily drafted and quietly slipped into a non-controversial bill that had already passed the Assembly.
It is moving quickly with the backing of the Legislature’s top Democratic and Republican leaders--an unusual alliance that has triggered charges that lawmakers are merely out to protect themselves.
“The effect of this bill would be to create an elite level of insulation from public scrutiny,” said Michael Dorais, lobbyist for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., the bill’s chief critic.
“Although there can be situations in which political people find themselves on the receiving end of bad publicity, their concern should be outweighed by the issue of maximizing confidence in government.”
The Legislature’s top leaders, however, argue that unless these records are kept confidential, reputations can be ruined by unsubstantiated rumors and half-truths often found in official files.
“Most (of the allegations) are made in the last week of the campaign and are entirely political,” Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said.
Could ‘Destroy Lives’
Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno said unverified information in some files could “destroy the lives of people. . . . We have a common concern and we have to lead the way on these kinds of cases and take the heat.”
The commission was established under the landmark Political Reform Act and has operated under the belief that its investigative files were confidential. But the practice was called into question when the San Jose Mercury News filed suit to prevent the FPPC from destroying its investigative files on former Assemblyman Frank Vicencia of Bellflower.
Vicencia, a close ally of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), was cleared by the commission in 1985 of conflict-of-interest charges stemming from allegations that he failed to disclose several clients of his insurance agency. One of those clients reportedly was a poker club owned by convicted political corrupter W. Patrick Moriarty. The newspaper’s suit is pending in Sacramento Superior Court.
The bill was drafted less than three weeks after the Mercury News went to court to halt destruction of the Vicencia files. While lawmakers said their intent was not to short-circuit the lawsuit, some, including Maddy, have acknowledged that the timing of the bill left something to be desired.
Adding to the controversy, Speaker Brown told reporters that the measure was aimed at news organizations that “allow themselves to be pimped” by political malcontents.
“It’s designed to keep you at bay,” Brown told reporters who queried him about the bill on the Assembly floor.
Critics of the bill agree that some information should be kept confidential. But they contend that the California Public Records Act, which governs the release of documents for nearly all public agencies, including police departments, is sufficient to protect politicians.
Release of Information
The public records law allows public release of information concerning the general nature of a complaint that was filed. Once a case is closed, the law also allows release of investigative files under certain circumstances with the names of confidential sources blacked out.
The FPPC bill goes much further, allowing the commission to keep confidential its investigative and audit files, transcripts and tape recordings of executive sessions as well as statements of witnesses and complaints. Even the fact that it is conducting an investigation may be held confidential by the commission under the bill.
Robert D. Ingle, senior vice president and executive editor of the Mercury News, said the bill thus sets up one standard for politicians and another for the rest of society. “What this means is there would be virtually no way to keep tabs on what the FPPC is doing or, more importantly, what it is not doing,” Ingle said.
Dorais noted that the bill also would allow the commission to publicly release any of its investigative files in the event it sees fit. That exception, he said, leaves much room for abuse.
“I would be concerned that a (FPPC) chairman in the future appointed by a governor . . . might reveal information about a legislative member but never about a member of the executive branch,” Dorais said. “This person in five or 10 years could make J. Edgar Hoover look like a tabby cat.”
But FPPC Chairman John Larson, who first suggested the bill to Speaker Brown, said no law can assure personal integrity. The Legislature, he said, must balance First Amendment press freedoms with an individual’s civil rights.
“In most cases, the balance has come down on the side of the press,” Larson said. “But some things have to give and the question is when should it come down on the other side.”
Larson himself was the subject of a Mercury News investigation that led the newspaper to report in April that he did not disclose, as required by law, lodging and meals provided last year in Carmel by the Assn. of California Life Insurance Companies. Larson was fined $123.52 by the state attorney general.
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