Capitol Alert

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Today's Bee reports that the state's Fair Political Practices Commission has three new faces as it gears up for its fall meetings.

What will they have to deal with when they arrive for the independent political watchdog's public meetings next month?

Elizabeth Garrett, a University of Southern California law professor, Chapman University law professor Ronald Rotunda, and Lynn Montgomery, a veteran Sacramento political hand and ex-FPPC spokeswoman, join a watchdog that has been hampered in its efforts to bring more criminal prosecutions over the years though it remains the envy of other states, said Robert Stern, president of the Center For Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Stern says that since its creation following a ballot initiative in 1974, the commission has been stretched by its heavy dual burden of handling both local and state government cases. It has racked up a hefty backlog.

The FPPC educates the public and public officials on the requirements of state ethics and campaign finance laws. It provides written and oral advice to public agencies and officials; conducts seminars and training sessions; and receives and files statements of economic interests from state and local officials.

The FPPC also investigates violations of the Political Reform Act and imposes financial penalties when warranted. It also helps state and local agencies develop and enforce conflict-of-interest codes.

Most of its cases are now administrative, where people get small fines for missing deadlines or failing to file campaign finance, lobbying or annual conflict of interest reports on time, and it does few criminal cases (which it must turn over to local district attorneys or the Attorney General for prosecution), Stern said.

"District attorneys are not interested in bringing political prosecutions case - they're not experienced with them," Stern said.

The numbers back his claim: In the FPPC's 30-year history, it has imposed fines of $12.6 million in 1420 administrative actions and $3.3 million in 43 civil judgments.

FPPC fines go to the state's general fund - not the FPPC.

Still, Stern says, the FPPC remains the envy of other states because its enabling statute does not allow legislators to interfere with much its budget, which now stands at $8.3 million a year and includes 78 full-time positions.

"I've been surprised that it's not been gutted," Stern added.

Stern is concerned that the Political Reform Act has not been updated in over a decade - an issue that new commissioners should know and be concerned about. A two thirds legislative majority is needed to pass amendments.

Garrett, for one, has used her own research to highlight weaknesses in current laws that govern public disclosure of who's backing big local bond propositions.

To read that intriguing research, click here.

Stern thinks limits for donations to the Governor's race are also far too high at $25,900 per election cycle, and should be a fraction of that, Stern said.

Lobbying regulations also need updating, Stern says, so that influence professionals are required to report contacts they make to influence state contract awards - a current major-league loophole.

Note:This post was updated to clarify that the FPPC itself cannot launch criminal prosecutions, but must turn over cases to district attorneys or the Attorney General.


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