Give the FPPC the Power to Fight Illegal Spending

In recent years, taxpayers throughout California have registered numerous complaints about government entities using taxpayer dollars for political advocacy, a practice that is illegal under both state and federal law. Because progress in stopping these violations has been slow, taxpayers will be pleased to hear that the Fair Political Practices Commission sent a request to the California Legislature that it “consider legislation amending the Political Reform Act to authorize the Commission to bring administrative and civil actions against public agencies and public officials for spending public funds on campaign activity.”

Taking up that challenge is Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens — co-author of this column — who has introduced Assembly Bill 1306, which is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Taxpayers hope that this commonsense, non-partisan proposal becomes law.

Here’s the background. The free speech clauses of the federal and state constitutions prohibit the use of governmentally compelled monetary contributions (including taxes) to support or oppose political campaigns because, as noted in Smith v. UC Regents, “Such contributions are a form of speech, and compelled speech offends the First Amendment.”

Moreover, as determined in Stanson v. Mott, “use of the public treasury to mount an election campaign which attempts to influence the resolution of issues which our Constitution leaves to the ‘free election’ of the people … presents a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process.”

While taxpayer organizations have been successful in several lawsuits challenging these illegal expenditures, they haven’t fully deterred lawbreaking by the state or local governments, for two separate reasons.

To read the entire column, please click here.

A crackdown on misuse of taxpayer money?


TaxesAs documented in this space on several occasions, local government officials throughout California have been thumbing their noses at a state law that prohibits them from using taxpayer funds for political campaigns.

Officials in cities, counties, school districts and special purpose districts routinely hire campaign management firms, often with multi-million-dollar fees, to manage every stage of their ballot measures seeking voter approval of new taxes or new bond issues (which require new taxes to service).

The consulting firms conduct polling of local voters and then draft the ballot measures to conform to what those polls indicate voters would find acceptable. The political pros then design campaigns for the measures, under the guise of “education,” to persuade voters to approve them.

Typically, the “education” campaigns are misleading, promising that the proceeds of the taxes and bonds will be used for popular facilities and services, such as police and fire protection or parks, while ignoring the underlying real reasons, such as to cover rapidly increasing employee pension and health care costs.

The consultants often boast of their high passage rates, and with good reason, because most of the carefully crafted and marketed measures do, in fact, win voter approval.

The practice is, as mentioned earlier, illegal. A specific state law prohibits it. But it continues unabated because local prosecutors, who sometimes share in the proceeds of the measures, have consistently refused to pursue cases against their fellow politicians.

Lately and belatedly, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has dived into the increasingly blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars, but it lacks the power to prosecute the miscreant officials. Rather, it has in some cases taken the indirect action of trying to compel the offending governments to file campaign donor reports.

Filing such reports would be tantamount to admitting that the law had been broken, so of course, local officials have dragged their feet on complying.

Local prosecutors appear to be adamant in turning a blind eye to this obvious law-breaking, so the FPPC is now asking the Legislature to give it the power to prosecute cases.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, has introduced Assembly Bill 1306, which would give the FPPC the power to bring civil and administrative actions against those who misuse public funds.

“The rules should apply to everyone,” said Garcia, who’s been an outspoken advocate of political reform. “I’m all for giving the FPPC more teeth to bite down on those who misuse taxpayer resources.  It’s quite convenient that the campaign laws enforceable by the FPPC didn’t include public officials or public entities within our own government entities. The FPPC noticed this gap in their enforcement ability and this bill now sends a clear message that California won’t tolerate public agencies, or elected officials, spending taxpayer dollars on campaign activities.” 

“This bill simply holds those in power to the same standard we hold those who are not,” Garcia added.  “Government shouldn’t get a pass just because it makes the rules. Fair is fair and we must hold individuals, and entities, accountable by empowering our oversight entities to dole out more than a fix-it ticket fine. No one is above the law, including our government.”

What happens to Garcia’s bill as it winds its way through the Capitol will be very instructive. Logically, legislators should be willing to put some teeth into the law they enacted, but logic doesn’t always prevail in politics.

If lawmakers continue to let their counterparts in local government off the hook, they should be ashamed of themselves.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

A Crackdown on Misuse of Taxpayer Money


TaxesAlthough state law specifically prohibits public officials from using taxpayers’ money for political campaigning, they have been doing exactly that throughout California.

Local governments hire “consultants” to poll voters on what tax and bond measures they would find acceptable, to draft those proposals accordingly and, finally, to run so-called “information” campaigns to persuade voters to approve them.

It’s so blatant that firms seeking lucrative contracts openly boast of their successful campaigns, eliminating any doubt that they are truly political operatives.

The practice has ballooned because local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office ignore complaints about its illegality. Indeed, local district attorneys often benefit from the higher taxes.

Finally, however, we may be seeing some effort to sanitize this very stinky phenomenon which, if left unchecked, will only become more commonplace.

Last month, the state Fair Political Practices Commission took a potentially significant action against the Bay Area Rapid Transit District for doing what it and other local governments have been doing.

The FPPC voted unanimously to impose a $7,500 fine on BART for failing to report its spending on a bond issue as a campaign contribution. It also asked the attorney general and Bay Area district attorneys to prosecute the transit district for violating the law prohibiting the use of public funds for political campaigns.

“It’s not the total (amount) of what was used; it’s the concept of misusing public funds,” FPPC chairwoman Alice Germond said at the commission’s December meeting. “We want to send a warning and not create a precedent that it’s a minor, ‘slap on the wrist’ kind of thing.”

The action stems from a proposed $3.5 billion bond issue, Measure RR, that voters in the three-county district approved two years ago by a 70 percent margin. The “information campaign” for the bond included a video, featuring Golden State Warriors player Draymond Green, that the FPPC said was acceptable, while concluding that two other videos and text messages to voters were clearly advocacy.

BART paid a public relations firm, Clifford Moss LLC, $99,000 to craft its measure before the item was placed on the ballot, and the same firm then directed the supposedly independent campaign for the bond measure.

The FPPC acted on a complaint from Jason Bezis, a Lafayette attorney. It’s similar to complaints that have been filed about other local bond and tax measures, including those in Los Angeles County, by taxpayer advocacy groups.

After the FPPC acted, a BART spokeswoman, Alicia Trost, told the Bay Area News Group that the campaign errors were “accidental.”

“We have been and will continue to be committed to following the law,” Trost told BANG. “We accept their finding.”

While state law allows agencies to publish accurate information about their proposals, they are not allowed to advocate their passage, and that’s the line that BART and other agencies have obviously and arrogantly been crossing.

If they use public money for campaigns, they will, the FPPC implies, be treated like other financiers of political campaigns and be required to file reports. If they file such reports, however, they will be admitting, in effect, that they are violating the law prohibiting such spending.

That’s where the prosecutors should come into the picture. They should do their duty, enforce the law and seek personal fines from the officials involved. And the Legislature could, and should, invalidate any local measure that’s passed when those officials ignore the law.

olumnist for CALmatters. 

FPPC Ups The Ante On Illegal Expenditures


money bagOver the last several years, this column has exposed multiple instances of government entities using taxpayer dollars for political advocacy, a practice that is illegal under both state and federal law.  Because progress in stopping these violations has been difficult, taxpayers will be pleased to hear that on December 20th, California’s campaign watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, conducted a hearing on illegal activity by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART).

The FPPC stated that BART used public funds to pay for a campaign of “YouTube videos, social media posts, and text messages to promote Measure RR, which authorized BART to issue $3.5 billion in general obligation bonds.” Under California law, spending money on a political campaign to pass the bond measure caused BART to qualify as an “independent expenditure committee” and required it to file campaign finance reports, but the transit agency ignored the requirement.

“BART failed to timely file two late independent expenditure reports in the 90-day period preceding the November 8, 2016 General Election; failed to timely file a semi-annual campaign statement for the period covering July 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016; and failed to include a proper disclosure statement in its electronic media advertisements,” the FPPC said.

The FPPC imposed a fine of $7,500, which critics of BART, including Senator Steve Glazer, rightfully complained was inadequate and no deterrent to future misconduct with taxpayer funds. In fact, the minimal fines may incentivize illegal activity because the ROI (return on investment) is frequently in the millions, if not billions, of dollars. Not only that, because the fines themselves are paid with taxpayer dollars, there are rarely any real-world consequences imposed on public officials who misappropriate public funds for political advocacy.

But things may be different now.

To read the entire column, please click here.

State ethics commission poised to help Democrats fight off recall effort


As reported by the L.A. Times:

The state’s campaign watchdog agency is poised on Thursday to open the spigot for large political contributions that would help an embattled Democratic state senator fend off a recall campaign, a change that opponents say is tainted by secret talks between a commissioner and a Democratic attorney.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission last month began the process of lifting the $4,400 limit on political contributions by elected officials to anti-recall campaigns. The change was requested by Democrats to help state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), who is facing an effort to remove him from office after his vote in April for a $52-billion gas and vehicle tax package.

FPPC Commissioner Brian Hatch is facing criticism for communicating before the vote with an attorney for the Senate Democrats, Richard Rios, holding a private meeting and exchanging emails and text messages that appeared to strategize on passing the policy change.

Hatch, a Democrat and former firefighters’ union lobbyist, defended his communication with Rios, saying it was needed to counter what he saw as a bias in favor of keeping the existing policy — which Hatch said he saw as unfair — by commission staff and FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke. Hatch challenged the notion that a campaign to recall an official could receive unlimited contributions while those fighting a recall were subject to limits. …

Click here to read the full article

Ethics commissioner Brian Hatch had private meetings with Democrats over recall election rules


A former labor lobbyist who serves on California’s political watchdog agency met privately, talked on the phone and exchanged text messages with a lawyer working for Senate Democrats while advocating for the agency to flip a longstanding legal interpretation of campaign finance law in favor of Sen. Josh Newman.

The conversations between California Fair Political Practices Commissioner Brian Hatch, a Democrat and former lobbyist for the firefighters union, and Richard Rios, an attorney representing Senate Democrats, were revealed in a public records request seeking communications about the matter.

Senate Democrats are asking the FPPC to reverse its position on contribution limits in recall elections. If the agency approves the change next week, state candidates would be able to give unlimited sums of money to Newman. The Fullerton Democrat is fighting a Republican-led recall to oust him and upend Democrats’ supermajority dominance in the state Senate.

FPPC commissioners are prohibited from speaking privately with interests in enforcement cases. Commissioners are allowed to meet or discuss the agency’s legal opinion on state law and rule-making decisions with outside parties, but such one-on-one meetings are unusual and are supposed to be disclosed. None of the other commissioners reported private meetings with outside groups in response to the records request.

Click here to read the full article from the Sacramento Bee

Jim Brulte: State ethics commission a partisan tool of Democrats


SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California’s supposedly non-partisan political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has exposed itself as a partisan tool of the Democrats.

First the Democrat-controlled legislature changes the law to protect Senator Josh Newman from a recall election his constituents are calling for. And today the FPPC overturns years of established legal precedents, over the objection of their own legal counsel, to help Democrat Senator Newman withstand the recall election.

This is another step in the continued decline of the integrity of California’s elections. It is one more example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Jim Brulte is chairman of the California Republican Party. 

More shady politics from Sacramento Democrats


State Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, left, listens as Senate President Pro Tem Kevin del Leon, D-Los Angeles, right, urges lawmakers to approve a measure to change the rules governing recall elections, Thursday, June 15, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Democratic lawmakers approved the bill that would let people rescind their signatures from recall petitions and let lawmakers weigh in on potential costs. Newman is facing a recall campaign over his vote to increase the gas tax. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Last week, the ostensibly nonpartisan California Fair Political Practices Commission agreed to remove a long-standing campaign contribution limit so that Democrats could better fight an upcoming recall election against one of their own. And you thought things were bad in Venezuela.

Earlier this year, frustrated taxpayers in Senate District 29 initiated a recall of state Sen. Josh Newman because of his vote to impose over $5 billion annually in new taxes on cars and gasoline. Within months, over 100,000 signatures were submitted in support of ousting Newman.

In a move to bolster Newman’s chances of surviving the impending recall, the Senate Democrats last month requested that the FPPC allow elected officials to contribute more than $4,400 — the legal limit — to Sen. Newman’s recall committee. Since 2003, the FPPC has maintained that the contribution limits that apply to candidate committees during regularly scheduled elections also apply to recall elections. In fact, back in 2008, that rule was applied against a Republican legislator, Jeff Denham, when he was fighting his own recall challenge. The justification for the limit is to prevent legislative leaders from using their power and influence over special-interest contributors to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could then be immediately transferred to the targeted legislator.

In response to the Democrats’ request, the FPPC’s own legal counsel reviewed the limit and concluded that the current interpretation is both “well-reasoned and legally sound.” However, in a 3-1 vote, the commission ignored its attorneys’ objection and gave preliminary approval to lift the contribution limit for recall candidates.

To be clear, many question both the efficacy and the constitutionality of political contribution limits. After reasoned debate, it may well be that the California Legislature would vote to lift the cap for future elections. But it is the method and timing of the revised interpretation that stinks.

First, the Democrats are hiding behind the FPPC. If they don’t like the contribution limits, they could simply pass a reform bill, which Gov. Brown would quickly sign. But, rather than be upfront about their political agenda, they asked their cohorts at the FPPC to do their dirty work for them via a regulatory amendment.

Second, and far more troubling, is the timing. If this particular contribution limit can’t be justified as advancing the public interest — and it may not be — why repeal it in a manner so transparently intended to help one particular political party, and one particular candidate? By not delaying the effective date of the regulatory change until some not-too-distant future election cycle, the FPPC loses the moral high ground, as well as the appearance of objectivity.

The upshot of this may not mean much. Sure, with lots more Democratic money to spend in the recall election, voters in the 29th Senate District will see their mailboxes filled to brim with misleading mailers, as well as nonstop radio commercials on every station, funded by special interests. But the anger on the part of working Californians over the massive tax increase, especially in Newman’s conservative district, is palpable — and even an unlimited supply of campaign cash may not be able to stave off voter wrath.

Nonetheless, the FPPC action is unseemly and wrong. Today, when cynicism over the political process is at an all-time high at both the national level and here in California, we should be assuring citizens that our democratic processes are fair and reflective of high standards of integrity. Unfortunately, the FPPC’s sudden rule change will only reinforce distrust on the part of voters.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

This article was originally published by the Orange County Register.

Legalized Marijuana Edges Closer to Reality


Buds are removed from a container at the "Oregon's Finest" medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon April 8, 2014. Over 20 Oregon cities and counties are moving to temporarily ban medical marijuana dispensaries ahead of a May deadline, reflecting a divide between liberal Portland and more conservative rural areas wary about allowing medical weed. Portland, Oregon's largest city, already has a number of medical marijuana clinics and has not moved to ban them. Picture taken April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY POLITICS HEALTH) - RTR3KMHE

Despite a mixed bag of support for the many propositions on California’s voluminous ballot, legalized recreational in-state marijuana use appears to be headed from far-off dream to dawning reality.

“Last month, the two most prestigious California public opinion outfits — the Field Research Corporation and Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) — both pegged support for Proposition 64 at 60 percent,” Ed Kilgore noted at New York Magazine. “Field nostalgically noted that its first poll of California on the subject, in 1969, showed only 13 percent support for legalization. A new PPIC survey in October showed legal weed pulling a mere 55 percent with 38 percent opposed. That’s still a 17-point margin. Indeed, there has only been one bad poll for Proposition 64.”

A decisive year

Although California has long been forced into the role of bellwether state by policy activists hoping to go national with Golden State victories, broader change in a pro-pot direction has been largely recognized as nearly inevitable given the sheer size of the market for pot that Prop. 64 would legitimize and expand. “Californians are on the verge of tripling the number of American adults who can legally acquire marijuana without interference from doctors, dealers or cops,” Reason magazine’s Matt Welch observed at the Los Angeles Times. “If Maine and Nevada voters do likewise, as seems probable, that would further expand the zone of recreational freedom to cover nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population.”

Pro-pot advocates have cast a broad net this election season. “Voters in five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana for adults,” as NBC News reported. “Medical marijuana is on the ballot in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.”

“Two national surveys released in mid-October confirm that, with the Pew Research Center revealing that 57 percent of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal — while 60 percent were opposed a decade ago. The latest Gallup Poll showed that support for legalizing marijuana is at 60 percent, the highest ever recorded in this survey. After Colorado and Oregon became the first states to allow the recreational use of pot, in 2013, support for legalization reached a majority for the first time.”

Business first

Entrepreneurs have already begun a rush to fill current and perceived appetites for a new generation of recreational weed products and services. “Startups are cropping up throughout the Bay Area that put a signature Valley spin on the age-old practice of selling marijuana, offering sleek on-demand delivery apps for users and high-tech software for growers and dispensaries,” the San Jose Mercury News recently noted. “The business models are risky — marijuana is illegal under federal law and stigma around the drug prevents cannabis startups from scoring funding from many major investors. But with recent polls suggesting Californians are poised to expand marijuana consumption beyond medical use, experts expect cash to pour into the industry.”

Already, changes to state law governing how licenses are granted to new marijuana businesses have helped open the floodgates. “New pot businesses have been springing up under medical marijuana licensing rules signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

Jump ball

Analysts have remained divided, however, on the partisan implications of legalization. While many traditional Republican critics have suggested that more permissive drug laws are of a piece with an expansive entitlement state, libertarian supporters like Welch have countered that more free-market innovations are likely to follow in Prop. 64’s wake. “What’s the 2016 equivalent of medical marijuana shops?” he asked. “Charter schools come quickly to mind. Wherever the one size is not fitting all to the end user’s satisfaction, there is an opportunity for governmental bodies to allow for some real or metaphorical outside lab work. Beware any entity that would prematurely close such experiments down.”

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Sacramento ethics law getting long-due overhaul


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After 42 years of regulating the state’s political ethics, with countless updates and tweaks, the Political Reform Act is due for an overhaul — and stakeholders are set to begin the process next week.

On Thursday, July 14, Fair Political Practices Commission Chair Jodi Remke and John Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward (a government and political reform advocacy group), will host a webinar to kick off the first of two rounds of public participation to create a comprehensive overhaul of the act.

Incumbents and candidates complain of an overly complicated system. The FPPC receives between 15,000-to-20,000 requests every year for advice from candidates and public officials.

Numerous legislative and voter-approved updates have left an “overly complex, cumbersome and sometimes contradictory” law, Remke said.

“This process is designed to simplify and streamline the act without weakening it or losing any accountability,” Remke said.

Law students at UC Berkeley and UC Davis have also contributed to the process by reviewing the law and making recommendations to the FPPC. And California Forward will help raise public awareness of the coalition’s efforts.

The Political Reform Act was passed in 1974, just two months before President Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, with the protracted scandal highlighting the need for political ethics legislation.

The law created the FPPC and regulated campaign finance, among other things. The original ballot summary is here:

“Requires reports of receipts and expenditures in campaigns for state and local offices and ballot measures. Limits expenditures for statewide candidates and measures. Prohibits public officials from participating in governmental decisions affecting their ‘financial interests.’ Requires disclosure of certain assets and income by certain public officials. Requires ‘Lobbyists’ to register and file reports showing receipts and expenditures in lobbying activities. Creates fair political practices commission. Revises ballot pamphlet requirements. Provides criminal and civil sanctions for violations. Enacts and repeals statutes on other miscellaneous and above matters.”

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com