State watchdog who probed secret political money takes U.S. post

SACRAMENTO — Ann Ravel will start her new job in Washington on Monday with the kind of celebrity status rare for a career government lawyer.

As California’s top political watchdog, she launched a landmark investigation into secretive nonprofit groups that spent millions on state campaigns last year, and she announced $16 million in penalties against those groups this week.

Ravel’s supporters, who view anonymous political donations as a growing scourge on the American election system, want her to be as aggressive in her new post as a member of the Federal Election Commission, where she was sworn in on Friday.


But transparency advocates hoping for a repeat performance in Washington may be disappointed. The commission Ravel is joining has been deadlocked for years, split evenly between Democrats who want stricter rules and California-style enforcement and Republicans who have opposed such efforts.

“She probably knows what she’s getting into, but it’s going to be a very, very different culture,” said Larry Noble, president of Americans for Campaign Reform. “We’re not even enforcing the laws that are on the books.”

Campaigns around the country have been flooded with secret political money since the U.S. Supreme Court eased campaign finance laws in the Citizens United decision in 2010.

Nonprofit advocacy groups and trade associations, which are not bound by law to reveal who their donors are, spent more than $300 million in last year’s election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Meanwhile, calls for stronger disclosure laws and better enforcement have gone nowhere in Washington. The partisan warfare there is so intense that President Obama has not even been able to place any new appointees on the Federal Election Commission until now, almost five years after taking office.

Ravel, a Democrat, is joining the commission alongside Republican election attorney Lee Goodman. He was selected by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an avowed opponent of forcing more disclosure.

In an essay in the Washington Post in May, McConnell called such measures “a backdoor effort to discourage those who disagree with the Obama administration from participating in the political process.”

With Washington as polarized as California used to be, it appears much more likely that stricter disclosure laws will come from Sacramento, where Democrats now dominate both houses of the Legislature.

The California campaign finance case that Ravel pursued involved $15 million that was shuttled through a series of nonprofits in Virginia, Arizona and Iowa. The money was then spent in California to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-hike plan and support a ballot measure to weaken unions’ political fundraising.

Ravel said California law was broken when some of the transfers were not properly reported. Her Fair Political Practices Commission issued a combined $1-million fine on two Arizona nonprofits, Americans for Responsible Leadership and the Center to Protect Patient Rights.

California campaign committees that received the donations are also being ordered to pay the state a total of $15 million, the sum officials said was improperly reported.

However, officials were unable to force any of the nonprofits to publicly name their donors, a central goal of the investigation. Only the uncovering of a partly redacted list of contributors shed some light on the people who wrote the original checks, including San Francisco investor Charles Schwab, casino owner Sheldon Adelson and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad.

Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that he would push stronger disclosure laws next year, and several bills are pending in the Legislature.

“Secrecy and money don’t mix well in a democracy,” Brown said in a statement. “We still have big loopholes to close.”

One measure would expedite state audits of election groups. Another would require greater disclosure of individual contributors to nonprofits that spend money on California campaigns.

“California is drawing a line in the sand for the rest of the country,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

A bipartisan effort to strengthen disclosure laws in Montana stalled in the state Legislature this year, but advocates are hoping to place a measure on the ballot in 2014.

In addition, the state’s top campaign finance watchdog, Jonathan Motl, said he’d like to emulate California’s approach to tracking money.

“The success of one state,” Motl said, “is something other states will look to.”

Megerian reported from Sacramento and Halper from Washington. Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.