California watchdog agency finds hundreds of finance and conflict violations in 2009

The state’s ethics watchdog agency last year found that hundreds of California politicians and bureaucrats had violated campaign finance and conflict of interest laws — and then let most of them off with a slap on the wrist.

In its 2009 annual report, the state Fair Political Practices Commission reveals that it closed 721 cases with findings that ethics rules were violated — more than double the year before. But only one in six violators was fined — a much lower number than the year before. The rest received “warning letters.”

Commission staff members defended the warning letters, saying the recipients in most cases were guilty of minor violations, such as missing deadlines for campaign reports.

Among those who received a letter, for example, was Fullerton City Councilman Shawn Nelson, a candidate for the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He failed to file his statement of economic interest on time but eventually did file the report.


The commission’s executive director, Roman Porter, said that even a warning letter can sting, because they are posted on the commission website for voters to see.

Porter said the commission, which has limited resources, was attempting to clear a huge backlog of cases. Issuing fines requires a costly and time-consuming prosecution process, he said, that the commission reserves for “more egregious violations.”

Porter said that in 2010 the commission issued the largest number of fines ever against sitting lawmakers for failure to properly report gifts they received. He said the commission has been more successful with the prosecutions it does pursue since becoming more selective about cases.