Our porous campaign laws

Campaign finance laws are designed to reduce the possibility of corruption and to minimize the effects of money so that elections don’t go merely to those who raise and spend the most. But the rules are invariably porous, so ambitious candidates and their clever consultants look for ways to evade or manipulate them. The current race for Los Angeles city attorney, which pits incumbent Carmen Trutanich against former Assemblyman Mike Feuer, is demonstrating once again that even the most well-intentioned laws don’t always work the way they’re supposed to.

First, there are the troubling implications of the unusual financial relationship that Feuer had with his political consultant, John Shallman. Feuer and Shallman agreed that rather than pay Shallman his full fee as the race unfolded, Feuer would give him a sizable bonus at the end of the race, provided that Feuer won. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an incentive bonus, but in this case, it allowed Feuer to avoid an important aspect of Los Angeles’ campaign finance scheme: To receive matching funds (at taxpayer expense), candidates for city attorney have to agree, in writing, not to exceed a spending limit; in the first round of the city attorney race, that limit was $1.259 million. Feuer spent $1.212 million, so if he had been paying Shallman, he almost certainly would not have been eligible for the matching funds, the not-trivial sum of $300,000. It’s possible that Feuer had no idea that his arrangement with Shallman would have this effect, but it’s fishy enough to be worthy of an investigation, as well as enactment of further rules to prevent a recurrence of the situation.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit group working to elect Trutanich lashed back at Feuer, raising another question -- this one a perennial -- regarding a different aspect of the city’s campaign finance rules: What happens when allegedly independent groups in fact collude with candidates, as Feuer alleges is the case with this group?


Collusion between a candidate’s official campaign and a supposedly independent group spending money on the candidate’s behalf undermines an essential premise of campaign finance law. Although contributions to candidates are limited, there are no caps on what a person or group may spend independently to elect a candidate. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that it violates the 1st Amendment to limit the amount of money that individuals and groups may spend to exercise their “speech” during an election. But if those independent groups really are just arms of the candidates’ campaigns, the limits on contributions ought to apply.

Advocates of campaign finance limits are a resilient bunch, and often have to change laws to catch up with those who evade the rules. It seems clear already that those advocates will have work to do in the aftermath of this race.