California campaign watchdog gets new powers

California Gov. Jerry Brown (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
File: California Gov. Jerry Brown (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The California agency that oversees campaign finance and spending will gain the power to investigate or audit political committees before an election takes place, one of several measures pushed in response to big-spending groups from out of state that sought to influence California elections in recent years.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Thursday signed the measure, which would also tighten rules on companies that make expenditures on behalf of political candidates, committees and independent actors, like television advertising buyers and mail vendors. Those vendors would have to report the identity of the group paying for the television ads or mail pieces.

The new law also gives the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s campaign finance watchdog, up to two years to conduct investigations.

The California Political Attorneys Association, which opposed the measure, said it doesn’t provide due process protections.

Democrats have advocated for bills that would strengthen the FPPC and restrict outside spending after two conservative groups based in Arizona helped funnel $11 million into two ballot initiative campaigns, one a series of tax hikes and another that would have limited the ability of labor unions to collect money to be used for political purposes via payroll deductions.

The group, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, helped fund the campaigns against the tax hikes and for the prohibition on payroll deductions while masking the identities of big donors involved. Money traveled from a California group to the Arizona group; later, similar amounts came from other outside groups, with ties to the funding networks of the libertarian mega-donors Charles and David Koch. (A spokesman for Koch Industries told The Washington Post in November that the brothers were not involved in the California campaigns)

After a year-long investigation, the FPPC and the California Attorney General’s office fined the two Arizona groups a combined $1 million, and ordered the California political committees that received the funds to pay $15 million in fines.

But the investigation took long enough and was difficult enough that the FPPC sought new powers. Ann Ravel, the former chairwoman of the FPPC and now a member of the Federal Election Commission, supported the law Brown signed on Thursday in hopes of clarifying that her old agency had the power to conduct audits before Election Day.

“We recognized that it is most important to get the information about whether groups making political contributions are complying with the law before the election, as having information about who is behind political contributions after the election has little value to the voter,” Ravel said in an e-mail.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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