The Fair Political Practices Commission: Online, open and ethical
The Fair Political Practices Commission is the state’s ethics agency, responsible for monitoring the behavior of every public official in California. About 100,000 government employees fall under its purview.
The incoming chairwoman, Ann Ravel, to her credit, recognizes that it’s impossible to keep a close eye on all of them. Even investigating the complaints that come in is an enormous task. Last year, for instance, the agency received about 1,500 complaints of alleged ethics violations, but ultimately concluded that only 223 were serious enough to merit fines. Ravel is rethinking the agency’s approach and hopes to refocus resources on the more serious conflict-of-interest and money-laundering cases. She also wants to simplify some of the more convoluted ethics rules and spend more time educating officials on compliance. Those are all good ideas.
But as one of her first moves, she’s made a decision that does not help the cause of political accountability. The previous chairman, Dan Schnur, had begun posting notices of all the agency’s investigations online. Ravel has reversed that policy.
Ravel makes a number of good points. She notes that the threshold for opening an investigation is low. The agency will often open a case on the basis of a newspaper story or a credible complaint. Because even politicians ought to be presumed innocent, Ravel reasonably asks what the value is of disclosing unsubstantiated allegations that may turn out to have no merit whatsoever.
She’s particularly concerned because the system is being cynically manipulated. In campaign season, a candidate’s opponent will contact the agency with an ethics complaint — often a very minor one, or one that doesn’t have any basis in fact. Then, when the case is formally opened (as it usually is) and posted online, the opponent will alert the media in hope of eliciting a headline saying that the candidate is being investigated for ethics violations.
In Ravel’s view, that’s unfair, a denial of due process and, worse, it makes the agency complicit in dirty politics. So effective last week, she changed the policy and took down the posts.
That’s the wrong decision, in our view. For one thing, even Ravel acknowledges that the agency’s investigations are public information. If a reporter calls, prompted by a candidate’s opponent or not, Ravel says the agency will certainly reveal whether an investigation has been opened. So all that will be accomplished by removing the postings is to make public information less easily accessible. It won’t even protect the due-process rights of the people being investigated because the same information will be obtainable with a phone call. A reporter would have to know to call, of course — but surely the opponent’s campaign would take care of that.
As a general rule, disclosure is a good thing. Democracy is predicated on the idea that participation requires information. There are limited exceptions — national security, the sanctity of criminal investigations, some legitimate claims of personal privacy or safety. But those exceptions should remain narrow. It’s public information when a person is arrested — long before he or she is actually convicted — and it’s public information when even the most frivolous lawsuit is filed. So why the sensitivity about these ethics complaints?
The agency should emphasize to the media and the world that the mere opening of an investigation doesn’t imply any wrongdoing. One way to drive the point home would be to say so clearly on the website and at the top of every document in or about the investigation. And maybe there’s a way to crack down on frivolous or phony complaints. But to make public information more difficult to obtain is contrary to the agency’s primary mission of promoting accountability.
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