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In a tumultuous election year, California sees a flood of complaints about alleged campaign law violations

In a tumultuous election year, California sees a flood of complaints about alleged campaign law violations
With election day looming, people cast their ballots for the 2018 midterm elections at the early voting center at the University of California Irvine campus on Oct. 30. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California’s political watchdog agency is seeing a spike in allegations of campaign irregularities in what has been an especially contentious election year.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission reported 2,252 cases of alleged campaign law and ethics violations in 2018, including complaints from the public, referrals from other agencies and investigations by its staff.

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It’s a 69% increase over the 1,331 FPPC cases during the same period in 2016, and also higher than the 1,646 allegations received in 2014, the most recent midterm election year.

“I think it’s part and parcel of the heightened political acrimony of the last two years,” said Gary Dietrich, a nonpartisan political analyst. “Campaigns have gotten more aggressive. There is more scrutinizing of each other. I have never seen the kind of intensity for a midterm election like we are seeing this year.”

FPPC Chairwoman Alice Germond agreed that the flood of complaints about California contests — including campaigns for statewide ballot measures — stems in part from the lively political debate this year, as Democratic and Republican candidates battle over contests that include who will control Congress.

“In this very dynamic election year our enforcement division is more active than ever, both encouraging Californians to report issues and taking quick action,” Germond said.

A new website by the agency AdWATCH allows visitors to upload and report mailers, signs, door-hangers, television ads and digital spots that they believe aren’t in compliance with state law, which requires disclosure of who is paying for the political pitches.

The agency has received more than 100 complaints to the site in the month since it was launched. In the month before that, the agency received 98 complaints through its regular website, opened eight formal investigations and rejected 48 others as unfounded or lacking evidence or jurisdiction.

Complaints received by the FPPC ahead of the Nov. 6 election that are still being investigated include:

— The Proposition 6 campaign to repeal an increase in the gas tax alleged Caltrans violated the law by allowing contractors to distribute fliers opposing the measure on a state road construction project.

— Opponents of Proposition 10, which would expand the power of cities to adopt rent control, filed a complaint alleging that the committee Make Housing Affordable – Yes on Prop 10 did not properly disclose its campaign activity, including top donors.

— The California Taxpayers Assn. alleged Los Angeles County violated the law by spending public dollars to promote Measure W, which would raise taxes on property owners to fund stormwater system improvements.

— A citizen filed a complaint ahead of a local election in Corona raising questions about how a city councilman paid for a trip to Washington, D.C.

The Proposition 6 campaign filed its complaint with the FPPC on Aug. 29 to address what it felt was an uneven playing field caused by a misuse of taxpayer resources. Caltrans officials said they are complying with campaign rules.

Repeal activists voiced frustration that the FPPC hasn’t concluded the investigation it launched on the complaint before the election.

“It’s disappointing — but not surprising — that a so-called ethics agency controlled by state politicians refuses to enforce rules to prevent those same politicians from breaking rules and misleading voters on the Yes on 6 Gas Tax Repeal initiative,” said Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for the Proposition 6 campaign.

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The FPPC, whose members are appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown and other statewide elected officials, tries to expedite investigations of complaints, but some cases can take months to review.

Campaigns that violate state laws can face steep fines.

Former state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) was fined $63,000 in 2016 for campaign finance violations that included exceeding contribution limits and failing to disclose the source of political donations.

But often the FPPC seeks corrective action to resolve complaints without fines. So far this year, the agency has issued 409 warning letters to campaigns and government employees notifying them that they have violated rules of conduct, but stopping short of seeking fines.

The commission has approved penalties in 192 other cases this year, with fines totaling $397,250.

Other times, offenders are given verbal warnings and a chance to correct the problems.

When agency officials saw that there wasn’t the required disclosure of who was behind an online video opposing Proposition 12, which would require more space for egg-laying hens, the FPPC contacted the group behind the video and they took it down before a complaint could be filed by the public, agency spokesman Jay Wierenga said.

Complaints filed on the new AdWatch website included an allegation that there wasn’t proper disclosure of the funder of an ad played on the Spotify music streaming service opposing Proposition 8, which would impose a limit on profits earned by large kidney-dialysis corporations. The committee later changed the ad to comply with the law, Wierenga said.

Another complaint to AdWatch said a candidate for a local office failed to put a “paid for by” notice and committee name on a mass mailer, according to Wierenga, who added that the candidate added the proper disclosure to subsequent ads after contacted by the FPPC.

The goal is to make sure the public knows who is funding campaigns, officials say.

“Gaining compliance and getting information to the voters is making our elections cleaner and better than ever,” Germond said.

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