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Political committees are targeted

Times Staff Writer

The committee known as Leadership California has doled out millions, funding campaigns to recall a state senator, approve transportation bonds and extend term limits for legislators.

Behind the generic name is a major player in state politics: Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. But the fact that Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, controlled the committee as it spent big bucks to sway elections was not readily apparent to voters.

On Thursday, the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s ethics watchdog agency, took the first step toward making sweeping changes aimed at lifting the veil from political committees trying to influence elections in California. The commission will now accept public comments on the proposed rule changes before holding a meeting to vote on whether to adopt the requirements.

“Having the candidate’s name in all candidate-controlled committees adds greatly to public disclosure,” said Hyla Wagner, a senior attorney for the FPPC, in a report proposing the changes.

The proposed new rules, which would apply to committee names included on political mailers and broadcast ads, would also require that:

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* Election committees include the name of the candidate, the office sought and the year of the election.

* Ballot measure committees identify in their names the top three donors in descending order of the amount given.

* Independent expenditure committees set up to influence an election use, in their names, the candidate being supported or opposed, the office involved and the year of the election.

Politicians and major donors may have an interest in disguising their involvement in a campaign if voters would react negatively knowing how extensively they are involved, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

“In a lot of situations it doesn’t work in the candidate’s or proposition’s favor to know who the politician is behind a committee,” Feng said. “Any disclosure that increases voter knowledge of who is behind committees is a good thing.”

The new rule on candidate-controlled committees would also affect groups such as Strengthening California Through Leadership, which is run by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

Paul Hefner, a spokesman for Perata, said they had no objection to the changes.

“We’d be all right with that,” Hefner said. “We think disclosure is a good thing.”

But others questioned whether the new rules were necessary, noting that committees subject to state oversight already disclose who is behind them in the organization papers and in periodic campaign committee reports available on the Internet.

“The public already has that information,” said Stephen J. Kaufman, an attorney who specializes in campaign finance law. Kaufman, who represents many elected officials, including Bass, said he had not yet been persuaded there was a problem with the current requirements.

But, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of any client, he said he was open to supporting the proposal if shown there was a need.

In practice, the proposed rules would apply to the dozens of committees that say “Friends of . . .” or “Taxpayers for . . .,” requiring them to be more explicit about their purpose.

The committee Taxpayers for George Runner -- which is raising money for a possible 2010 campaign for the State Board of Equalization by the Republican state senator from Lancaster -- is among those that would be affected. Under the proposed rules, the committee would have to be renamed something like Taxpayers for George Runner for Board of Equalization in 2010.

That would be fine with Will Smith, Runner’s spokesman, who said the old name was chosen because “it sounds good.” He did note, however, that already lengthy committee names could get even more unwieldy.

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patrick.mcgreevy@ latimes.com


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