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April 18, 2014
Viewpoints: What does Leland Yee tell us about the political culture of Sacramento?

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(April 18 — By Jessica A. Levinson, Special to The Bee)

There is no amount of public campaign financing, no level of campaign contribution limits and no array of campaign disclosure laws that would thwart someone who is willing to engage in illegal arms dealing. I am talking of course about state Sen. Leland Yee.

Yee has been accused of trading campaign donations for government contracts, honorary proclamations and of course weaponry, among other things. Essentially prosecutors will need to demonstrate that Yee intended to carry out a promise (a quid) for a campaign donation (a quo).

A number of people have asked me whether this affair indicates that we need to implement political reform in California. I believe the answer is "no," with a caveat.

First, if the allegations are true, they indicate that Yee broke numerous laws, not necessarily that the laws themselves are broken. People commit murders; that does not mean we need to change our criminal laws.

Second, I didn't need to hear about the accusations against Yee to conclude that we should reform the way we conduct business in Sacramento. So there you have the caveat.

Some have asked whether what Yee did is merely representative of a system of corruption in the state Capitol. It certainly is the case that many contributors give to candidates in the hopes of gaining something in return, but I hope and believe that even without the arms-trading claims, these allegations stretch far beyond what is normal in Sacramento. We are not talking about your run-of-the-mill ethical violation here.

It is true that money flows freely, too freely, throughout our state Capitol. Campaign contributors and spenders, and lobbyists exert substantial influence over our candidates and representatives. This is so because the drive for campaign funds is ceaseless. And when not enough funds are raised, candidates wind up in debt.

Yee's problems seem to have come to the fore when his unsuccessful mayoral campaign in San Francisco ended with $70,000 in debt. Yee raised more than $5 million in campaign funds over the course of his career, but it is the debt that plays a central role in the 137-page federal complaint filed against him. The complaint indicates that Yee's desire to pay off this debt was a driving force behind his willingness to trade money for favors. Although the complaint by no means indicates that the debt was the only factor contributing to Yee's alleged misconduct.

Some portion of this made-for-TV-movie scandal indicates that we should look to see whether we can improve the political culture of Sacramento. And as an aside, it is frankly a good public-relations move for sitting state senators to start to think about ethics reforms, even if they are only tangentially related to the charges lodged against Yee. Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg knows this; he is conducting an "office-by-office" ethics review.

So maybe I'm wrong and there is a world in which full public campaign financing and limited independent expenditures (a world the Supreme Court would never recognize) could prevent the sort of political scandal we're now seeing play out. But I'm not willing to let Yee off that easily. If the allegations are true, the insatiable thirst for money is no excuse.

Yee's tale may bring a renewed push for reform in the state Capitol. Let's just make sure it is real, and not merely reactionary, reform.

Jessica A. Levinson is an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she teaches election law, money, politics and the Supreme Court, and the campaign finance seminar. Follow her on Twitter @LevinsonJessica. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu.