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February 11, 2014
Editorial: FPPC should look at tighter rules on politicians' 'behests' to charity

Kevin_Johnson.JPG(Feb. 11 - By the Editorial Board)

The other shoe dropped on Mayor Kevin Johnson's headline-making habit of directing big donations to his favored nonprofits - but not with a thud.

On Monday, the Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $1,000 for improperly reporting $22,713 in travel paid for by the Walton Family Foundation, a major charity started by Wal-Mart's founders.

The state's political watchdog, however, still needs to dig much deeper into the whole issue of behests - payments from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals that are made to charities at the behest of elected officials. The commission plans to review behests, but there are no specific legislative proposals yet, a spokesman told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board on Tuesday.

It certainly seems like the time to determine whether clearer or tighter guidelines are needed. Now, there are few rules whatsoever. Unlike campaign contributions, there's no limit on the amount of behests. Elected officials need only file public reports within 30 days on any payments totaling $5,000 or more from the same source in a calendar year.

As politicians have repeatedly demonstrated, if there's a gray area in political fundraising to exploit, they will.

Johnson has been among the most aggressive users of behests as a way to extend his limited official powers and push his agenda on education, the "green" economy and other causes. Last year, he reported more than $1.3 million in behests, compared with less than $1.1 million for all 40 state senators combined. Assembly members reported nearly $2.5 million for 2013, and statewide elected officials another $3.9 million, including $3.4 million by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Last week, Johnson reported his biggest single behest to date - $400,000 from a Kaiser Permanente charity to College Track, an Oakland-based nonprofit that says it helps underprivileged students earn college degrees. The money will go to bring the program to Sacramento High, according to the mayor's office. Now, the nonprofit has three centers in the Bay Area, plus sites in Los Angeles, Aurora, Colo., and New Orleans.

It's true that behests often support worthy programs in needy communities, yet they can also give at least the impression of currying favor.

In Johnson's case, the FPPC rejected allegations that $500,000 given by the Walton Family Foundation to Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, founded by the mayor, and $8 million it pledged to StudentsFirst, a school reform group founded by his wife, Michelle Rhee, created conflicts when Johnson joined the rest of the City Council in voting last August to loosen restrictions on superstores like Wal-Mart. The FPPC says there was no conflict of interest because the money didn't come from Wal-Mart, itself.

The $1,000 fine, which Johnson has agreed to pay, is a slap on the wrist compared with the $37,500 penalty the FPPC levied on Johnson in December 2012. That fine was $1,500 for each of 25 violations of not reporting behests totaling more than $3.5 million and dating to 2009.

Under California's current rules, other than filing reports on time, it's carte blanche for elected officials to funnel cash to nonprofits connected to them or their issues.

That's a scandal waiting to happen. Prevention would be much better than fining wayward politicians after the fact.