State Attorney General Jerry Brown is a former governor and an author of the landmark California law that created the state’s political watchdog. He’s also proficient in tapping into a little-known form of political contributions in which well-heeled donors give unlimited amounts to charitable and nonprofit groups of the politician’s choice.
“I don’t think that just because someone runs for office that they give up their charitable responsibilities or lose a part of their citizenship,” Brown says.
Since January 1, Brown has directed “behested payment” donations totaling $900,000 to two entities: the Oakland Military Institute, a charter-school military academy that he founded in 2001, and the Oakland School for the Arts, which he helped establish the year before. Both target Oakland’s underserved and minority communities.
Both Oakland schools are nonprofits and fall into the category of “legislative, governmental or charitable” groups to which elected officials can direct contributions that often exceed the limits governing campaign donations.
As mayor of Oakland, the creation of the Oakland military school became a top priority for Brown. His strong support for charter schools rankled local teachers’ unions and other Oakland activists.
“They are very important to the community,” Brown said. “The institute provides a tradition and training that is often lacking in the public schools. It’s about molding character and encouraging excellence,” he said, noting that the institute’s first graduating class this year has 50 students, including two bound for West Point. “And 80 percent of our students qualified for either UC or CSU,” Brown added.
State law limits the amount of money an individual or group can give to Brown directly. But there are no limits on contributions made to the military institute of school for the arts, even if those payments come at Brown’s request.
For example, a single contributor to Brown’s election campaign is limited to $6,000 per donation per election. But that same person could contribute $25,000, $50,000, $100,000 or more through “behested payments” to an entity selected by the politician and on whose behalf the donation has been solicited.
The institute–which has its first graduating class this year, 50 students, including two bound for West Point–received about $300,000 and the arts school about $605,000 in 85 separate donations of at least $5,000 each. Until the two entities file their annual financial reports, the total amount they received in donations won’t be known. That’s because donations less than $5,000 are exempt from the disclosure rules enforced by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Brown believes the behested payments are an effective way to get money to worthy causes. In the case of the Military Institute and the Arts School, they also receive some public funding and money from an array of philanthropists. Those include the California Community Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Nan Tucker McEvoy Foundation and the Koret Foundation. Other donors include Hollywood Park, the Normandie Casino and the Oceans Eleven Casino.
“I would always hope that the office holder will take an interest in charitable donations. These are very important programs. The nonprofit sector is crucial in a civil society. We are vitally dependent on the robust health of the nonprofit sector,” Brown said. “I’ve supported them and I’m going to keep on supporting them for the rest of my life.”
The behested payments have long flown under the public’s radar–and not just the public. “I didn’t even know about them myself until a couple of years ago, and I helped write the Political Reform Act,” Brown noted. The act created the Fair Political Practices Commission in 1975. The Commission enforces the state’s campaign-finance and conflict-of-interest laws.
“He didn’t know about it because the [behested payments] law didn’t exist in the original Political Reform Act,” said Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “It’s such an obscure provision,” added Stern, who once served as the FPPC’s general counsel. “It was written later to cover inaugural expenses.” On July 5, Capitol Weekly reported that statewide and legislative officials during the past two and one-half years behested more than $10 million in payments to an array of nonprofit, charitable and research groups.
The problem with behested payments is that while they do not go directly to the politician’s political campaign, they can be seen as efforts by wealthy interests to curry favor. Too, the entity that receives the money is grateful.
“[The politician] becomes a king maker, and the recipients are eternally grateful to him. It makes the king maker feel great, and it creates a lot of good will,” said Stern, who said the reporting limit should be lowered to $1,000. “That $5,000 is way too high. But I don’t think there should be limits on the donations if they are for charities.”
In the late 1990s, the FPPC did draft a rule to regulate behested payments, but it was effectively gutted by a 1997 bill authored by then-Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach. Her SB 124 exempted certain types of payments from the legal definition of “contribution,” including “payments made at the behest of an officeholder for legislative, governmental, or charitable purposes.”
The FPPC keeps paper records of the behested payments, which are supposed to be reported within 30 days of the contribution. There are no electronic records of the payments, and they do not show up on the Secretary of State’s Web site, where campaign donations are disclosed from private persons, political actions committees, political parties and the like.
The FPPC, seeking greater scrutiny of behested payments, is considering placing records of the contributions on the Web. Currently, they exist only in hard-copy records available at the FPPC’s headquarters. “It’s under legal analysis right now. We’re actively looking into what needs to be done to make those documents available to the press and public,” said FPPC spokesman Roman Porter. Adding on-line disclosure likely could be accomplished internally through the FPPC, and not require new legislation, he added.