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January 27, 2014
Editorial: FPPC showed its mettle; now Brown and Legislature should act

Ann_Ravel.JPG(Jan. 27 - By the Editorial Board)

California's Fair Political Practices Commission closed the case on the secretive $15 million that flowed into California in the 2012 election by collecting a final $300,000 last week.

Now, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown should do their part.

Brown cares about the commission, having established it by sponsoring the initiative that created the Political Reform Act in 1974.

But former FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Brown appointee, was confirmed to the Federal Election Commission four months ago. Brown should find a new chair who shares Ravel's passion for nonpartisan enforcement.

Under Ravel and enforcement chief Gary Winuk, the commission pushed the boundaries of the law when it sought a pre-Election Day audit of a late $11 million donation to the Small Business Action Committee in the 2012 campaign against Brown's tax-hike initiative and for an anti-labor initiative.

Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch's network helped funnel that $11 million to the Small Business Action Committee, plus $4 million to a front group, California Future Fund.

The FPPC fined two groups, Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership of Arizona, $1 million in October, and pursued an investigation of the recipients of the money.

California Future Fund, which spent $4 million on ads opposing the anti-union Proposition 32, turned to dust after it served its function, and provided no money.

That left longtime political operative Joel Fox and his Small Business Action Committee holding the bag. The FPPC says Fox did nothing wrong. But because the donation had been laundered, Fox's political action committee disgorged what money it had, $300,000, in the final settlement.

With the foul episode over, the Legislature should update the California Political Reform Act so the FPPC can keep up with how political money moves in 2014.

Assembly Bill 914 by Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, would require increased disclosure by the sort of dark-money organizations that funneled the $15 million into the state in 2012. The bill has stalled. Legislators should approve it before the 2014 election.

Lawmakers also should approve Gordon's Assembly Bill 800, and Senate Bill 27 by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana. The measures would make clear that the FPPC has the authority to audit candidate-controlled committees suspected of wrongdoing before an election.

There always will be big-money donors who look for ways to hide money from voters and dance at the far edges of the law. But so long as it has adequate laws on its side and an aggressive chair, the FPPC can make scofflaws pay.