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Political watchdog becoming a lapdog?

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POSTED March 28, 2012 12:19 a.m.

From the moment it was created as part of the 1974 Proposition 9 political reform initiative, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has operated on the presumption that politicians and their most active campaign aides and backers should never be fully trusted.

But that underlying approach has seemed to change gradually under the leadership of the agency’s current chair, former Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel, appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sure, the FPPC still assesses significant fines when wrongdoing is proven – but they often come long after any harm from a campaign law violation can be undone. The latest big fine was a $30,000 levy against ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his ballot measure committees, which spent $1.1 million on television ads during Schwarzenegger’s 2009 budget negotiations with legislators. That fine came this spring, years too late to mitigate the effects of that illegal spending.

There was also a $111,500 fine levied in December against a Pinole city councilman who participated at least 16 times in governmental decisions that benefitted a company which used his services in his private life.

But plenty has changed, with the commission looking far more politician-friendly. The latest example of this came in mid-March, when a 3-2 commission majority led by Ravel ruled in an Orange County case that it’s OK for local elected officials to vote on their own prospective appointments to government boards and commissions that pay per diem expenses or other stipends.

Previously, conflict of interest rules prevented city council members or county supervisors from voting to name themselves to panels like water districts or air quality boards that sometimes pay more than the elected positions they hold.

The commission also no longer makes public cases it is considering until after they’ve been decided, a big change from its previous practice. That now leaves voters in the dark about claims of illegal donations and other shady campaign practices they’ve been told about for the past few years even before the cases were decided.

It’s important that voters know such accusations because politicians and their consultants often break the rules in order to win elections, even if they know they’ll endure some negative headlines later. That’s because immediate public notice of accusations against politicians and their operatives can be a deterrent against dirty or corrupt politics, including false or misleading ads and accepting illegal or excessive campaign donations.

Not publicizing charges against politicians and their campaigns until they’re decided is a bit like not revealing indictments or charges against accused criminals until after their trials.

One who disapproves of the new FPPC chairperson’s approach is the immediate past chair, Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican political operative who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. Schnur, onetime press secretary for both former Gov. Pete Wilson and former presidential candidate John McCain, says it may be inconvenient for politicians when accusations against them are posted online, but “the inconvenience of the politicians is not as important as the interests of the public.

 “We all know that most political consultants, regardless of party, are willing to go over the line to win an election, and then put up with whatever happens long after the results are in,” he said.

 “I know Ann is a good person and a smart person, but she obviously thinks the political community can be trusted with less oversight than I do.”

Further evidence that the new FPPC majority trusts politicos more than the commission previously did comes in the form of rule changes that last fall loosened restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to legislators and statewide officials. Lobbyists who have “bona fide” dating relationships with lawmakers, for instance, now can give them jewelry, restaurant meals and other gifts without their being reported, leaving “the Legislature to police its own house.”

That change drew a loud complaint from Commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor appointed by state Controller John Chiang. “I find that mind-boggling,” he said. “Had they policed their own house, we wouldn’t be here.”

But some others are not as disturbed as Schnur and Rotunda. “I’m not really outraged by something like the Orange County ruling because these people don’t usually get much for serving on city councils,” said Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the FPPC’s enabling initiative. “I don’t think the commission has lost its teeth; it’s just going in a slightly different direction. Every new chairperson comes in with their own agenda.”

But the new course appears substantially different and weaker than the practices that long made the FPPC a strong watchdog. Most changes in the past year have leaned toward making it the politicians’ lapdog instead.

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