In the year since a former state legislator took the reins of the state's political watchdog agency, prosecutions and fines for violations have dropped significantly while more cases have been resolved with only warning letters, agency statistics show.
That has some good-government activists worried about the shift at the state Fair Political Practices Commission since former state Sen. Ross Johnson became chairman. The agency is facing a proposed 10% budget cut.
"It's a concern that there are fewer penalties for cheating or breaking the rules," said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign. "If people are just get warning letters, that is a slap on the wrist, and of course people won't pay attention to it."
But Johnson, who was appointed to lead the commission last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the numbers reflected his philosophy of setting priorities, not a retreat from enforcement.
Johnson, a Republican who represented part of Orange County in the Legislature for 26 years, said in a recent interview that some of the changes reflect a shift in focus by an agency with limited resources.
"I have directed the enforcement staff that I want them concentrating on the bigger cases that have more significance in terms of public harm, and by definition those cases require more time and effort," Johnson said. "I have also instructed the staff on matters that represent more technical violations, more inadvertent violations, where it's appropriate in the exercise of their discretion, to close a matter with a warning letter to the individual involved," he added.
The commission levied $583,474 in fines in 159 cases last year, less than half the $1.2 million in fines imposed the year before in 269 cases. The amount last year marked a seven-year low and was far below the $1-million annual average for the previous decade.
At the same time, the number of warning letters issued by the agency increased from 30 in the year ending Feb.13, 2007, when Johnson took over, to 294 in the ensuing year. Commission spokesman Roman Porter said the numbers also reflect an effort to clear a significant backlog of cases.
Still, the numbers startled some who count on the agency to keep state government clean.
"That does raise some questions for me, particularly because we had understood the FPPC has wanted to sharpen its teeth and be much more proactive," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.
The appointment of Johnson was welcomed by many in the political reform field at the time. In the Legislature, he was a leading proponent of Proposition 34, a measure approved by voters in 2000 that put in place some campaign reforms.
As head of the commission, Johnson has impressed some by pursuing new rules to close loopholes in campaign finance reporting laws.
This month, the commission approved rules that will require politicians to publicly explain how meals, gifts and out-of-state travel paid for with campaign money are connected to political or governmental business.
"I do think he has the credentials, and he certainly has been saying the right things," said Derek Cressman, also of Common Cause.
Johnson said a lot is going on behind the scenes to toughen enforcement against the worst violations.
He said he had ordered his staff to create a task force on political money laundering that will pursue cases in which one donor disguises his involvement by reimbursing several others for the political contributions they provide to his favored candidate.
"I think that's one of the most serious offenses," Johnson said.
In one case last month, the commission levied fines of $55,000 against the Latino Builders Industry Assn. in the San Diego area for being the actual source of 11 campaign contributions to candidates for city councils, school district boards and an Assembly seat. The donations totaling $2,600 were made by others between November 2001 and October 2004.
Johnson acknowledged that time would tell whether other big cases result from the shift in enforcement priorities.
"If over the next year I don't start to see a parade of more significant cases, then I suppose that failure is mine," he said.
Lange says the governor's plan to cut the commission's budget by 10% next year does not bode well for better enforcement.
The five-member commission was approved by voters in 1974 as part of the Political Reform Act, which gave the panel and its staff the role of enforcing rules that restrict political fundraising and lobbying.