California's political watchdog agency is moving to crack down on loose lobbying reporting requirements that have allowed interest groups to hire former politicians as consultants and launch ad campaigns to push their agenda with virtually no financial disclosure.
Ann Ravel, chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission said today that she has assigned a working group to take on issues raised by a Bee investigation earlier this month. Interest groups that spend the most money trying to influence policy in California's Capitol spend the bulk of it in secret, The Bee found, because disclosure forms allow them to report huge sums in a catch-all "other" category that requires no detailed reporting to authorities.
"We're going to make it a fairly broad mission to look at any issues relating to lobbying that should be cleaned up with respect to the payments -- things included that shouldn't be, and lack of clarification -- as well as any other matters that are in the scope of the FPPC's authority," Ravel said.
"We're happy to talk about making recommendations for legislation as well," she added.
The FPPC could require more detailed disclosure by lobbyists and the groups that hire them, but other aspects involved in regulating the lobbying industry -- such as changing the definition of who must register with the state as a lobbyist -- would have to be changed by the state Legislature.
Ravel said the working group would include representatives of various Capitol interests, including lobbyists, watchdogs and political lawyers. Jim Cassie, president of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, the association that represents Sacramento lobbyists, said his group would be happy to participate.
"We think we can make a difference in this debate," Cassie said. "Clearly we're part of it."
Phillip Ung, an advocate with California Common Cause, a good government group, applauded Ravel's decision and said he planned to be part of the group too.
"I think this is a good step," Ung said.
"There are things that can be done by the commission - regulations - and they should be taking those steps."
State law allows groups that hire lobbyists to report spending on scores of activities that are related to lobbying - but do not meet the legal definition of lobbying - as a single lump sum. In this category, listed as "other payments to influence" on disclosure forms, groups report how much they are spending, but not what they're spending it on.
The "other" category can cover myriad expenditures, from the heating bill in a lobbyist's office to hiring former legislators not formally registered as lobbyists to pull strings inside the Capitol. Among them: former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, former Assembly Speakers Willie Brown and Fabian Núñez, and former Assemblymen Jim Brulte and Rusty Areias.
Lobby groups have spent $2.9 billion on their efforts in the past 12 years. Of that, $794 million fell into the non-itemized "other" category.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ann Ravel, chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission. Dec. 5, 2012, Sacramento, California. Renée C. Byer / Sacramento Bee