A new debate has Capitol watchers asking a provocative question: In a state where mudslinging is routine and elected officials are disdained by many voters, will even politicians be presumed innocent?
A changing of the guard at the state’s political ethics headquarters has spawned a dispute over whether the push for transparency in government has gone too far in cases of politicians accused of misconduct.
Federal attorney Ann Ravel will be sworn in as chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission on Monday. Ravel said she is committed to openness but is reconsidering her predecessor’s policy of announcing investigations on the commission’s website before allegations are substantiated. That can unfairly tarnish politicians, she said, and lead to political mischief.
“When a complaint is put up on the website prior to an election, it gives the appearance that there is some validity to it when in fact there hasn’t been an investigation,” Ravel said. That can give ammunition to political rivals, she added.
Santa Monica attorney Sean Eskovitz, the second commissioner newly appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, supports a review of the policy. “I share her concerns,” he said.
Outgoing commission Chairman Dan Schnur defended the Web posts, saying fewer complaints have been filed with the commission since he started posting the notices before last November’s election —evidence, he says, that such transparency has put pressure on candidates to run clean campaigns.
“I know from my work on campaigns that a headline in the days before an election is a much more effective deterrent than a fine that is imposed weeks or months afterward,” said Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former political consultant.
Deterrent or not, the issue played in the race for state attorney general last fall when, days before the election, the campaign of San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris alleged ethics violations by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, her opponent.
Neither Cooley’s nor Harris’ office publishes notices of pending investigations. But Harris’ campaign made public its sworn complaint to the commission that Cooley had not properly disclosed a number of gifts — something he denies.
Cooley campaign consultant Kevin Spillane last week said he doubted that Harris’ tactic was a deciding factor in Cooley’s subsequent loss. The complaint, which was still being reviewed by the commission to determine if an investigation was warranted when voters went to the polls, received little attention, he said.
But he opposes the publication of such information on an official website before an investigation is complete. “I think it leads to an abuse of the process,” he said.
Lawyers who represent accused politicians agree.
“The posting policy is the FPPC equivalent of a ‘perp walk,’ designed to embarrass the targets of investigations and to draw press attention to the agency,” said James C. Harrison, president of the California Political Attorneys Assn., a group of lawyers who represent politicians named in complaints.
For years the FPPC would neither confirm nor deny the investigations in which it was engaged, a practice shared by other agencies including the U.S. attorney’s office and the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2007, newly appointed commission Chairman Ross Johnson decided to begin responding to reporters’ questions about whether an investigation has been opened in response to a complaint. He believed it furthered the aim of the state’s open records law.
Johnson also directed the commission staff to begin posting other information, including the gifts that politicians received, their investments, donations they ask supporters to make to their favorite charities and scolding letters sent by the agency.
In September 2010, Schnur caused a storm by posting the notices of investigations. The defense lawyers predicted last year that the notices would lead to a spike in frivolous allegations by candidates hoping to hurt their political foes.
“It is not difficult to conceive of future mailers and television ads that feature a screen print from the ‘investigations’ page of the FPPC’s website with a banner headline ‘Candidate X is under investigation for misusing campaign funds,’ ” Harrison wrote to the commission.
But Schnur said campaigns were instead resisting any temptation to misbehave for fear their actions will end up on the website.
Supporters of his argument say politicians have no reason to whine. People who go into politics should not be surprised if someone slings mud their way, and they can expect to be cleared of any false charges, said Terry Franke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware
“People in political life in modern times know they run the risk of a certain amount of abrasion,” Franke said.