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Opinion

Editorial: A right and reasonable crackdown on illegal campaigning

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 9, 2019 - Antonia Ramirez, right, and Arnold Sach, left, address members
Community members address the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors during its meeting at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration on April 9.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

State and federal law forbid governmental entities, like cities or counties or school districts, from using public funds or resources to campaign for ballot measures.

They are allowed to share impartial information with voters using normal communication channels. For example, a city may post facts on its municipal website about how the proceeds of a proposed bond measure will be used to replace aging water pipes. But if city officials dip into the treasury to produce and mail glossy campaign ads to voters urging their support for the measure in the upcoming election so their taps don’t dry up, that would cross the line into advocacy, which is prohibited.

In such a case, the state’s political watchdog would immediately swoop in and …

Oh, wait. Actually, despite its name, the California Fair Political Practices Commission lacks the authority to pursue such unfair political practices. That is a duty reserved for the state attorney general or local district attorneys, should they be inclined to divert their time and resources away from prosecuting murderers and suing presidents to investigate whether the county’s bond measure mailer was an illegal use of public money.

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Governments are right to demand clarity about what is permissible and what is not.

According to the FPPC, that kind of prosecution just doesn’t happen, and as a result, most violations don’t get examined or punished. The commission is asking state lawmakers to change that by expanding its authority to launch administrative and civil enforcement against public officials who misuse public resources to improperly support campaigns.

It’s a reasonable request. It is in the public’s best interest that officials be wary of crossing into advocacy and stacking the deck. If governments and their agencies were free to use taxpayer funds and resources to push a measure that benefits them directly, that would be a conflict of interest. It’s just wrong to allow government to use our own money to sell us on raising our taxes or to lobby us on other issues we’re supposed to be deciding.

The FPPC is the right organization for the job. It was created in 1974 to oversee the provisions of the new Political Reform Act, including enforcing the rules on campaign funding for elected officials. The governor appoints the chair and one commissioner, and the state attorney general, the secretary of state and the state controller each get one appointment. No more than three of the five commissions can be members of the same political party. The agency is staffed by investigators, auditors, lawyers and other experts in campaign violations, conflicts of interest and proper politicking.

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The FPPC has tried to fight illegal public expenditures using its limited powers. When the Bay Area Rapid Transit used public resources to promote Measure RR, a $3.5-billion bond measure in 2016, the FPPC went after the agency for failing to file campaign statements. It was a technical win, with a paltry $7,500 fine that is unlikely to chill similar behavior. But it inspired the commission to ask for the authority to impose fines and penalties on governments and agencies that misuse their public resources. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) is now carrying a bill to do that.

Local governments are opposed to the idea. They worry that the commission might wield its new authority unfairly. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, for instance, voted to oppose the bill. The county is currently being investigated by the FPPC for spending $1 million on television ads and social media posts that seemed to promote Measure H, a sales tax hike to pay for homeless services on the 2017 ballot. The ads don’t clearly advocate for the measure, but do speak glowingly of what it would do. Is this allowable “education” or prohibited “advocacy”? The county regularly uses television and radio advertisements to impart important information not related to political campaigns, so that can’t be used as proof alone that a communication is illegal.

Governments are right to demand clarity about what is permissible and what is not. Generally, there are few guidelines for public officials to follow when determining what campaign communications their agencies can undertake, and the proposed stakes for mistakes are particularly high: penalties equal to misspent funds that officials would have to pay themselves. If we are going to hold public officials accountable to this degree, then it should come with clear rules about what is acceptable and what is not.

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