Thursday, September 01, 2005

State Watchdog Begs for Mercy - Asks Legislature to Curtail Citizen Complaints

California is a state with no shortage of powerful, wealthy interests that use their money to influence elections, government, and public policy. To make sure these interests play by California's liberal campaign finance laws, the legislature created the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

As Sacramento Bee columnist and blogger Dan Weintraub writes, today the FPPC is considering a resolution which would ask the Legislature to limit the ability of private citizens to file hundreds of enforcement actions at the same time. The resolution comes in response to the filing of complaints by a Southern California lawyer against hundreds of donors for failing to file as major donors (those donors who give more than $10,000 a year (page 11) to candidates and committees).

The laundry list of FPPC responsibilities is very lengthy, including dealing with state and local officials on ethics and conflict of interest issues, monitoring campaign finance filings, addressing complaints, and promulgating regulations to implement state policy among others. In addition to these responsibilities, the FPPC must fight a continuing battle for funding from the very politicians it is charged with monitoring. (For example, the FPPC has not only seen its funding cut by Governor Schwarzenegger, but has had to expend a significant amount of resources on a lawsuit filed by Governor Schwarzenegger's allies and joined by Schwarzenegger against it.)
This combination of extensive responsibilities with limited resources means that the FPPC often relies on private citizens for reporting possible violations of California's campaign laws.

However, that doesn't mean that the FPPC shouldn't welcome citizen involvement in the task of ensuring that candidates, donors, and political groups play by the rules - if anything, the Commission should encourage it. Citizens play an important role in keeping an eye on government and those who try to influence it. While the simultaneous filing of hundreds of complaints might overload the Commission's resources, it is much better to err on the side of vigorous citizens involvement in the process than to shut us out.

The Commission recognizes the importance of citizen involvement in the enforcement process in its proposed resolution. As we do politicians, big-time donors, and special interests, the rest of us will be watching the watchdog to make sure their populist sentiments aren't just lip service.

Mark Krausse, executive director of the FPPC, points out that the FPPC was not created by the Legislature, but by initiative referendum. Prop 9 (1974) created both California's Political Reform Act and the FPPC.

He also writes a little more about the specifics of the Ryan case, which led to the proosed resolution discussed above: 1) this particular litigant filed more than 900 complaints with us, and the law only allows us 120 days to vet those and decide if we want to bring them ourselves--not nearly enough time unless we're to stop all other enforcement activity, and 2) Mr. Ryan's settlement offer was 90% of the amounts not reported, he's not given any ground to those who have agreed to settle, and he's taking the position he's entitled to all of the money paid in settlement, saying the 50% to the state general fund required by the PRA applies only to judgments and not settlements.

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