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Record Penalty Levied on Foes of Gun Control : Politics: Californians Against Corruption must pay $808,000 fine for failing to adequately report its finances during recall attempt of Roberti.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state political watchdog agency Thursday levied an $808,000 fine--the highest of its kind in state history--against an anti-gun control group for failing to adequately report its campaign finances as it worked to oust former state Sen. David Roberti from office in 1994.

Named in the record-breaking fine by the state Fair Political Practices Commission was Californians Against Corruption, a South Bay organization that led a fight to recall Roberti, and two of the group’s treasurers.

The fine was enacted on a 3-0 vote after a staff recommendation Oct. 11 accusing the committee and its treasurers of willfully violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws in 404 instances.

FPPC Chairman Ravi Mehta said the huge fine was levied not only to punish gross wrongdoing but also to send a signal that the commission would not tolerate “absolute defiance” of its laws. Mehta said Russell Carl Howard, one of the group’s treasurers, has repeatedly indicated his contempt for the FPPC’s disclosure requirements.

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Howard on Wednesday maintained in an interview with The Times that the fine was an attempt to muzzle those who dare challenge the state’s political elite, such as Roberti. Howard said the disclosure requirements of the FPPC are so onerous as to constitute an infringement on the rights of citizen-activists to participate in the political process.

Howard, claiming he was destitute, said he wanted to get legal assistance so he could, as is permitted, challenge the fine in Superior Court. “They’re trying to wreck my life--they don’t even treat murderers and rapists this bad,” Howard said.

Two years ago, the group, with help from the National Rifle Assn., Gun Owners of California, a gun manufacturer as well as from scores of 2nd Amendment activists, made California history by getting a recall measure against a state legislator before the voters. It was the first time in 80 years that such a recall had qualified for the ballot.

However, after a bitter campaign that became a lightning rod for a national debate about gun control, Roberti handily survived the April, 1994, recall election.

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Roberti, who was the state Senate’s president pro tem at the time, had drawn the ire of gun activists because of his authorship of a law to ban the sale of military-style assault rifles in California. Although he beat the recall, Roberti was forced to leave office in December, 1994, because of term limits.

Roberti teaches at USC and is a member of the state California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. In an interview, Roberti said that the campaign was largely to blame for the failure of his bid to win the Democratic nomination for state treasurer in June, 1994, because he spent so much time and money fighting the recall.

At Thursday’s FPPC hearing, neither the committee, Howard nor Stephen Cicero, another treasurer for the group, presented any defense--although they were invited to do so. FPPC spokesman Gary Huckaby said the commission discussion focused on the magnitude of the group’s violations and on the likelihood of collecting the fine.

“We’ll do a full-court press to collect,” Huckaby said. “Even if that means we have to garnish wages and attach property.”

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“What wages, what property?” Howard said later. “I haven’t worked in a year and a half.”

Although Cicero, a computer technician, is liable, the FPPC clearly held Howard, a former stockbroker, mostly responsible for the group’s sweeping campaign finance reporting lapses.

Cicero last month said that the FPPC action was administrative overkill because the agency triple-counted many of its charges. For example, instead of filing one count against the group if it failed to adequately identify the address, occupation and employer of a contributor, it filed three counts--one count for each infraction.

The complaint includes 105 counts for failing to disclose the addresses of 105 contributors, 93 counts for not listing the occupations of as many contributors and 91 counts for not listing the employers for as many contributors.

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All told, the committee raised $141,559 and spent $103,091.

In addition, the FPPC approved a fine against the San Francisco 49ers and the football team’s chief financial officer. They were fined $60,000 for a money-laundering scheme that was designed to get around San Francisco’s campaign contribution limits. FPPC staffers said last month that the violations involved about $7,500 in illegal contributions to former Mayor Art Agnos during his 1991 campaign.


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