Political Watchdog in Hot Seat Again in Fight to Hold Post

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This was no Mr. Nice Guy. The day Ravi Mehta assumed the helm of the Fair Political Practices Commission back in January 1995, he outlined for a hushed room full of subordinates his plans to run a no-nonsense, business-like ship: strict work hours, high expectations, no blue-jean Fridays.

One shellshocked staffer meekly asked Mehta if there was any hope his appointment as commission chairman might yet be rejected by the state Senate. The room roared with laughter.

But they're not chuckling anymore.

During his 2 1/2 years as the state's top political watchdog, Mehta has earned more than his share of enemies both inside and outside the agency he commands. Staff morale has dipped precipitously, insiders say, and Mehta's relationship with most of the five-member board has dissolved.

Last October, the commission clipped Mehta's administrative wings by naming a chief executive to take over daily operations at the agency. And last week, two fellow commissioners called on Mehta to resign from his $103,000-a-year job for comments that were critical of Proposition 208, a voter-approved political reform initiative the agency is scheduled to defend in court.

Among foes, Mehta has earned a reputation as a watchdog who ought to be watched and his tenure has been marred by what they consider a series of ethical lapses sharply at odds with the squeaky clean image of the post.

Mehta dismisses the criticism as typical Capitol fare, saying that he has simply become a lightning rod for liberal political reformers.

"I'm not surprised that anything I say opens the door for more criticism and more piling on by my critics," Mehta said, adding that many of his foes are "the worst kind of cynics" attacking him because he doesn't blindly follow their wishes.

Mehta could once again find himself on the hot seat today, when the commission meets for the first time since Commissioners Carol Scott and Bill Deaver called for his resignation after his impolitic critique of Proposition 208 during a June 20 speech to a room of Capitol lobbyists attending an ethics seminar.

The commission is scheduled to tackle several issues that have pitted Mehta, a conservative Republican appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, against the political reform camp. Among the matters expected to ignite sparks during today's meeting is a controversial decision by the commission's legal staff allowing independent political groups to ignore the money-raising restrictions of Proposition 208 until they begin spending the cash.

"I think he's in the wrong job at the wrong time," said Tony Miller, who helped author the ballot measure. "He's been the champion of weakening 208. He has not been on the side of defending the act, but on the side of allowing lobbyists, PACs and politicians to have their way."

Mehta counters that he has "always defended 208. But in order to defend it, you have to understand its deficiencies."

He also argues that the commission has to interpret the measure literally, even if that means going against the intent of its authors. "While I think the spirit of 208 is admirable, all we can look at is the document itself in interpreting it," Mehta said.

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If Mehta is once again at the center of the storm, then it's nothing new. For those who know him, it's just Ravi being Ravi.

A former prosecutor with the Orange County district attorney's office, Mehta came under fire in 1990 when he worked at a lower-paying job as a political assistant to county Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez but continued to collect his old salary. Mehta repaid more than $5,000 after the glitch was discovered, but it was a blemish.

After a stint in private practice, Mehta went to work as deputy appointments secretary for Wilson. Mehta had been a tireless campaigner for the governor when he won in 1990. A native of India, he also made a name for himself as a savvy GOP fund-raiser.

Foes have accused Mehta of remaining too cozy with the governor's office ever since he arrived at the commission. Mehta was criticized by consumer groups for performing legal work for Bob White, Wilson's then-chief of staff, while the commission was investigating a member of the governor's Cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Henry Voss.

Mehta has no apologies. "Bob is a friend," Mehta said. "But there was no conflict. There was absolutely nothing there. Zilch.

"Sacramento is a very small town; everybody knows everybody," Mehta added. "When you take a position like this, you don't just give up your relationships. You just have to know where to draw the line."

Critics say Mehta has yet to figure out where that line is.

Some of the gripes border on nit-picky. Reformers, for instance, went to the media with revelations that agency postage was used to mail invitations for Mehta's private Christmas party (Mehta blames it on a secretary who made a mistake).

But other accusations are more serious. Some suggest that Mehta too willingly attempts to tamper with his agency's enforcement division, which investigates allegations of political wrongdoing. The commissioners, who act in almost a judicial capacity to decide the outcome of cases, are supposed to keep clear of the autonomous prosecutorial arm.

"I've been told by people in the enforcement division that he wants to kick our numbers up, but this isn't a shoe factory or Walmart," said Deaver, a Republican. "What we do has to be based on what comes across the transom to us."

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When the agency was investigating Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush last year, he had a chance meeting with Mehta on a plane flight and at a party. Quakenbush's attorney, Chuck Bell, acknowledges that he called the commission to caution them "that we were concerned there not be any discussion that would prejudice the case." The commission ended up fining Quackenbush $50,000 for campaign reporting violations.

Mehta says he has "never, ever tried to influence any enforcement case. Nor would I ever. It just never has happened and never will. If anyone ever tried, the whistle-blowing at this agency would be so loud you'd be thrown out on your ear in a nanosecond."

Critics among his own staff say Mehta's people skills are sometimes nonexistent, his ambition unbridled. Mehta, they say, tried to fashion himself as an Imperial Chairman. Many took notice when, soon after he arrived, Mehta redesigned the commission's stationery so only his name appeared on the masthead.

Mehta says simply: "I'm a former prosecutor. My training, my background, is I tend to be a cut-to-the chase type individual."

But his tenure at the agency has seen some notable accomplishments, among them establishing a computer Web site for the agency to increase public access to documents, putting the agency's myriad advice letters on a database used by attorneys and upgrading its own in-house computers.

He also won plaudits for a "deadbeat politicians" program that got many scofflaws to cough up their fines. Mehta also pushed the Legislature for higher fines and to give the agency criminal authority, two law enforcement measures that only were enacted with passage of Proposition 208.

"I feel I have set the tone for the commission as a tough enforcer of the political reform act," he said. Since Mehta became chairman, the FPPC has handed out nearly $3 million in fines. That's more than it had in the 10 previous years combined.

These days, he's also trying hard to be conspicuously above reproach.

Mehta eagerly tells a story about how he was sent a state paycheck for personal leave he had logged. The check was in error, giving him double the money he should have collected. Mehta says he got right on it, sent the check back and insisted the mistake be corrected.

"What that shows," he said, "is that I'm honest."

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