California’s political watchdog panel eases its approach to ethics issues
Reporting from Sacramento -- Three decades after Gov. Jerry Brown played a key role in creating a state political watchdog, the panel — now dominated by his appointees — has retreated from its aggressive approach to ethics enforcement.
As part of a top-to-bottom rewrite of regulations in the last year, the Fair Political Practices Commission has eased restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, scaled back its open meetings and stopped notifying the public of pending investigations. Its job is to enforce laws on election campaigns, lobbying and conflicts of interest involving public employees, including the governor.
Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, whom Brown appointed in February 2011, said she was trying to make rules fair, clearer and easier to comply with and to focus on the worst offenders rather than on those who make minor mistakes. But she has outraged some good-government advocates along the way.
“I think the agenda is to basically castrate the commission,” said fellow Commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor appointed by the state controller.
The panel prosecuted some big cases against politicians in the five years before Ravel took over, assessing them large fines, and tightened restrictions on the activity of public officials. Ravel, a veteran government attorney, said Brown gave her no marching orders when he appointed her.
“What we want to do is make sure that public officials use their positions for the good of the public and aren’t doing it for their own self-interest,” she said in an interview in her downtown Sacramento office.
The commission was born as part of the Political Reform Act, an initiative co-authored by Brown and approved by California voters in 1974 after a series of political scandals. So that no single official has undue influence over it, two members are appointed by the governor and one each by the attorney general, secretary of state and controller.
But because Brown was California’s attorney general before becoming governor a year ago, he has appointed the majority of commission members. He also made the body’s top attorney a political appointee rather than a civil servant, which allows the governor to replace the person who advises the commission and politicians on what’s allowable.
Brown declined to be interviewed. His spokesman, Gil Duran, said the governor has no specific agenda for the commission but supports what his chairwoman is doing.
“The governor believes Ann Ravel is doing an outstanding job and operating in the best traditions of an independent agency, advancing the public trust in a practical and intelligent way,” Duran said.
Brown’s first appointee to the commission, in 2009 when he was attorney general, was controversial. He tapped Lynn Montgomery, who had managed the gubernatorial run of former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante six years before. The campaign paid one of the largest fines in FPPC history.
“To appoint somebody who had a history of being involved in a campaign that crossed the line in the most egregious way in ethics law violations is troubling,” said Kathay Feng, president of California Common Cause.
And the governor has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the commission.
In 1981, the FPPC called for a criminal investigation into whether key aides to then-Gov. Brown had perjured themselves, destroyed some records and withheld others to thwart a probe of possibly improper political activity in the governor’s office. State law bars government resources from being used for campaigns or other political purposes.
Brown denied any wrongdoing by his office, which challenged the FPPC’s jurisdiction in the matter, and prosecutors filed no charges. But Brown’s reelection campaign later reimbursed the state $2,000 for the use of its computers.
Brown opposed the commission in court in 1990, after voters approved Proposition 73, which placed limits on campaign contributions. Then chairman of the state Democratic Party, he was part of a lawsuit to nullify the measure, which he called “one of the most pernicious campaign laws ever enacted.” His side won.
He battled the commission again in 2000, when he was mayor of Oakland and was pursuing an ambitious redevelopment program for the city. The FPPC found that Brown had a conflict of interest because the program could have affected the value of his residence. Accusing the panel of applying the law too broadly, Brown sued and won in an appeals court.
Ravel had also argued from the outside for the FPPC to ease up. As Santa Clara County counsel in 2003, she won relaxed conflict-of-interest rules for county supervisors.
One of her first acts as commission chairwoman was to rescind public notices about pending investigations. Her predecessor, Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now runs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, had posted such information on the panel’s website in hopes of deterring politicians from misbehaving.
Ravel argued that public airing of allegations that had not yet been substantiated violated the due-process rights of those accused.
She also canceled about half of the commission’s monthly meetings, which Schnur also questioned. “It’s important for the political community to know that the body responsible for its oversight is meeting on a regular basis,” Schnur said.
Ravel’s biggest dispute with open-government advocates has involved the overhaul of gift regulations.
State law requires officials to disclose gifts they receive and bars them from accepting gifts worth more than $10 from lobbyists. Ravel noted that the FPPC had allowed exceptions over the years if an official was dating the lobbyist or was a guest in the lobbyist’s home.
The dating exemption is now written into state regulations, with a requirement that officials refrain from action on issues involving those with whom they are in a “dating relationship.”
That will prevent abuse, Ravel said, without poking the government’s nose into people’s personal lives.
“The fact that somebody getting an engagement ring from somebody and they truly have a relationship — I don’t consider that a serious problem,” she said. “And I don’t think that’s the FPPC’s issue.”
Feng of California Common Cause disagreed, saying, “Potential corruption does not stop just because the relationship has entered the bedroom.”
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