Ann Ravel, California’s political watchdog, captured public attention in November when she squared off against an obscure but well-heeled group calling itself Americans for Social Responsibility.
The Arizona-based nonprofit poured $11 million at the 11th hour into the California campaign opposed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, Proposition 30. On the eve of the election, the group admitted it was an intermediary and not the true source of the contribution as Ravel, the chair of the Fair Political Practices Commission, demanded disclosure.
“We will continue in this matter and all others to ensure that the people of California know who is funding political activity in this State,” she noted.
The dispute, which received wide attention in the media, was right up Ravel’s alley: She doesn’t mind picking a fight in her quest for transparency and she doesn’t like to sweat the small stuff.
As the head of the FPPC, Ravel enforces the Political Reform Act, a state law spawned by the Watergate scandals of the 1970s. And from the day the FPPC first opened its doors in 1975, the agency has been poking into pushing for disclosure ever since. Its power really rests in media attention and civil penalties, although it can refer cases to prosecutors for criminal prosecutions.
Ravel has evoked strong reactions, such as when she proposed that campaigns report when they pay bloggers for favorable mention. That plan was scaled back sharply amid free-speech concerns raised by professional bloggers.
Dan Schnur, Ravel’s predecessor as chair of the FPPC, complained that Ravel believed “that the interests of the political attorneys and lobbyists should take priority of those of the voters.”
But communications pro and political scientist Larry Gerston wrote that Ravel was “using her office in a refreshingly proactive manner” and called her a “game changer in California politics,” observing that she has “pump(ed) energy into a once-moribund office.”
Fellow commissioner Ronald Rotunda has accused Ravel of tearing down ethics regulations, while Phillip Ung of California Common Cause, the campaign reform group, says that she has been more lenient than Schnur and more cooperative in working with parties involved.
But amid the rhetoric, Ravel maintains that she has done more to investigate serious violations of the Political Reform Act than others in her position and avers that she is more interested in unearthing major cases like money laundering and conflicts of interest than minor violations that occupied the attention of predecessors.
Ravel served as deputy assistant attorney general for Torts and Consumer Litigation in the Civil Division of the U. S, Department of Justice that handles drug, consumer product, trade and highway safety litigation before being tapped
for her present post by Governor Jerry Brown in October of 2011. Prior to that, Ravel spent 32 years with the Santa Clara County Counsel’s office, heading it from 1998-2009. She’s a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Hastings Law School.
Capitol Weekly recently caught up with Ravel for some Q&A.
Recently, you won a legal battle requiring the disclosure of the identity of an Arizona group that had secretly made an $11 million donation to a committee opposing Governor Brown’s initiative measure to raise taxes.
Why did you take that action?
The primary purpose of the Political Reform Act is to provide transparency and disclosure to the people of the State about political campaign financing. The FPPC, which is entrusted by law to carry out this purpose, is also required to investigate and act on Complaints filed by the public. In the Americans for Responsible Leadership matter, a Complaint was filed with the FPPC and we were acting upon that Complaint as we do on all other Complaints.
Further, as Chair of the FPPC, I have made important, serious issues that matter because they undermine public trust in the political process. Of those priorities, one of the most significant is ensuring that the public has information about contributions prior to an election, when it is most relevant. Early in my term I directed staff to focus on these matters, and the staff has pursued numerous cases involving disclosure prior to the election. The ARL case was one such matter. This was one of the largest anonymous contributions in State history, and the public was not provided the information it deserves to be able to make informed choices prior to the election. So we swiftly made the decision to audit the records concerning this contribution to ensure that disclosure required by the law in California was taking place. It turns out that this required disclosure was not being provided, and we were able to obtain the information prior to the election.
How do you respond to claims that your action was prompted by your appointment by a Democratic governor publicly advocating for his tax initiative?
The FPPC is an independent, non-partisan commission which was enacted to implement California’s campaign ethics laws. There is no merit to any claim that this action was in any way related to my appointing authority. I am sworn to uphold the laws of this State, and to perform the obligations of my job as set forth in the law. This is precisely what was done in this case. The Commission treated this matter no differently than the other Complaints that we received and investigated concerning disclosure prior to the election. The only difference in this case is that ARL refused to comply with our lawful requests, requiring court action.
What’s the difference between Federal and California disclosure laws?
There are many differences between California and Federal disclosure laws. An important difference is in the case of independent expenditures. California has had many years of experience with independent expenditures, and has developed a body of law and regulations applicable to them. After Citizens United was decided by the Supreme Court, the FPPC took a hard look at our laws and last year sponsored legislation to increase disclosure and accountability. An example of this is to require IE committees to designate a “principal officer” who could be personally accountable for campaign ethics violations. The FPPC regulations also require disclosure of donors to IE committees under certain circumstances.
Does the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United in any way impact your action?
The decision in Citizens United changed the landscape of political contributions by opening the floodgates of campaign money spent through corporations and wealthy individuals. However, Citizens United specifically upheld robust disclosure of these contributions. As the Supreme Court acknowledged, it is vitally important that the true source of these contributions be disclosed prior to elections. States throughout the country need to be leaders in this effort.
Your term as Chairwoman of the FPPC has just begun. Will you target major changes in the Political Reform Act and, if so, what will they be?
My focus from day one has been to direct our enforcement efforts on the most serious campaign and ethics violations such as conflicts of interest, money laundering, and failure to follow the disclosure laws. In order to accomplish this priority, I have sought regulations and laws which will promote accountability for violations, as well as clarity and common-sense simplicity to help people to comply with the Political Reform Act. These efforts will be continued throughout the remainder of my term.
What other actions such as procedural changes can we expect to see from you?
I will continue to work with the Legislature and the Commission to enact legislative and regulatory changes that increase accountability and disclosure for large independent expenditures, and to clarify the law to ensure that people can understand and comply with it, so that those subject to the rules are held accountable.