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New end-run around fund-raising rules drawing attention in Capitol

Some lawmakers are raising money through local campaign committees they control that are not subject to the limits on state political contributions and allow big-money donors to get funds to favored lawmakers. The process, although on a small scale thus far, is starting to get traction. “This is becoming a bigger concern, and eventually we are going to have to deal with it,” says Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Riverside.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces the state’s campaign finance laws, is examining the issue, according to Capitol sources who have spoken to FPPC personnel. The FPPC declined comment, but FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson reportedly has met with lawmakers inside the Capitol to discuss the phenomenon — the latest in a series of twists and turns in the voter-approved campaign-reform measure Proposition 34 allowing political money to be moved around with scant scrutiny. Like some other gaps in the state’s campaign-finance laws, the goal of the donations is to enable contributors to quietly curry favor with elected officials.

At issue is the practice of a state official setting up a campaign committee for a local elective post — such as supervisor or city council member, for example — then tapping the local money, directly or indirectly, for the state official’s use. Depending on the local jurisdiction, political donations may be limited — or they may not. The procedure is allowed by law. Some counties have contribution limits, such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. Others do not.

For example, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, has set up a local campaign committee to run for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 2010. There are no limits on campaign donations to the local committee. His biggest donor to his local campaign is the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego County 500 miles away, which donated $20,000 to Torrico’s supervisorial committee. The tribe made that donation a month after giving $6,400 to his state Assembly campaign account — the maximum allowed under state law. Other donations to his local campaign include $5,000 from Anheuser-Busch Co. — which also donated to his Assembly campaign.

Torrico holds a powerful position as chairman of the Governmental Organization Committee, which has jurisdiction over liquor and gambling. His donors typically include interests that have issues within the committee’s purview. What is different from past years is that these interests are donating to a local committee as well.

Benoit authored legislation last year that would have required contributions to a candidate’s committees, state and local, to be totaled together and prohibit the donation of unlimited amounts of cash to local campaigns. The bill, AB108, would have imposed the same donation limits that apply to state candidates. Benoit yanked the bill from consideration and canceled its first policy hearing amid opposition from his colleagues. The measure remains in the Senate.

Tracking these committees can be difficult. There is no central place on the Secretary of State’s Web site to search candidate-controlled committees. Candidates are supposed to mention other committees when they file campaign statements, but those records are not always available online. Finding these committees often is the result of dumb luck, or diligent monitoring of daily filing reports.

Benoit introduced the bill after his rival for a Senate seat, Russ Bogh, R-Riverside, had set up committees to run for the state Senate and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Benoit acknowledged that he had obvious personal reasons for authoring the legislation, but felt that the larger public policy issue had been avoided by the Legislature because the members see advantages in maintaining the current system. Thus far, several such committees have been set up, and others presumably are flying under the radar.

“There is at least one city in each Senate district where there are no limits on contributions, and where there are local races. There are opportunities to find viable campaigns and set up these committees. You are legally allowed to do this stuff, and the contributions to the local campaigns are unlimited. Another beauty of this thing is that the county’s report is not available online,” Benoit said.

In addition, numerous local committees have been created by lawmakers not for specific local races, but for issues. Again, donations into those accounts are not limited. Expenditures from those accounts to the officeholder’s state account is limited by Proposition 34, which treats the transfers as individual donations.

Sen. Jim Battin, R-Palm Desert, for example, has separate committees set up called “Taxfighters for Jim Battin,” and the “Desert Friends of Jim Battin,” a newly created committee, plus a legal defense fund committee that received a $5,000 donation from the Pechanga tribe. A number of lawmakers in both parties have set up legal defense funds, including Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, D-Burbank.

Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, who has long been viewed as a contender for the speakership, has a committee called Strengthening California Through Leadership, which has collected some $56,000 and spent about $9,000. The donations included a $15,000 contribution from the Viejas tribal government. Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez have used candidate-controlled committees to raise money for initiative campaigns.

Assemblymembers Felipe Fuentes and Kevin De Leon each have multiple campaign committees open. But finding an extensive list of these committees is difficult.

Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, has a committee called “Monterey Bay and South Bay Committee for Yes On Proposition 93,” which lists a sole donation of $1,000 from a local distribution company, and no expenditures. Laird is a ranking member of the Assembly, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee and a close ally of Núñez, the principal supporter of Proposition 93, which would ease term limits to allow lawmakers to spend up to 12 years in one house of the Legislature. Under current law, approved by voters in 1990, lawmakers can spend up to 14 years in Sacramento, but they are limited to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate.

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