New political watchdog chairman takes over, makes big changes

The Fair Political Practices Commission is eight blocks from the Capitol, a perfect metaphor for the relationship between the Capitol and its watchdog. Reviled by lawmakers and dependent on their budgetary whims, the FPPC has been the odd man out of state government for decades — fighting for every dime, making powerful enemies with alacrity and fending off a hostile Legislature.

The FPPC, spawned by the Watergate scandals, is the state’s political watchdog (although few at the FPPC like that term) with the authority to enforce campaign finance laws. But critics have complained that its teeth have been drawn. In part, that’s because the FPPC does not conduct criminal investigations, it has strict limits on fines that are rarely painful to flush campaign accounts, it is understaffed and submerged in paperwork, and it enforces intricate and arcane rules that prove daunting to even the brightest public officials. With a staff of about 80 and an $8 million budget, the FPPC has jurisdiction over thousands of state and local officials.

But in recent months, the watchdog has been baring its fangs, at least in part because it has a new chairman: Ross Johnson, a combative, conservative Republican from Orange County who was appointed to the $127,833-a-year position in February by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve been in a lot of fights. I’ve lost most of them,” Johnson noted. His critics, including political attorneys and some in the Legislature, hope he keeps losing them. So far, though, that isn’t happening.

Johnson, who served 26 years in the Legislature, including stints as GOP leader of both the Senate and the Assembly, is shaking things up.

Consider the following:

•The FPPC ordered that spending from a politician’s legal defense fund actually be used for legal defense — a key issue in the Legislature, where politicians set up such funds to help with legal fees and then use the money for other purposes. Unlike campaign donations, contributions to legal defense funds are not limited. The action closed one of several loopholes in Proposition 34, the voter-approved campaign contribution initiative.

•The commission ordered that the donations — also unlimited — made to nonprofits and charities at the direction or behest of politicians be disclosed on the Web. For a decade, the contributions have been kept in paper documents only.

•The commission ordered that the response time for complaints be cut and made uniform. After a complaint is received, the FPPC now must respond within 14 days. If it is not able to do that, the deadline can be extended by 14 more days. Either way, the complaints are fielded in less than a month. The response does not contain the results of an investigation, but says whether the FPPC will investigate or not. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” notes Johnson.

•The FPPC has drafted a regulation — the first hearing is Dec. 13 — to crack down on the use of campaign funds for such things as overseas travel, luxury hotel rooms and fancy restaurants. The regulation was prompted by recent disclosures of such spending by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, although Johnson denied it.

Núñez’s supporters contend that Johnson himself engaged in similar spending, and they note that he voted in 2000 to ease the travel reporting requirements. For his part, Johnson doesn’t respond. “I’m not going to get into a debate with legislative officials or candidates.”

•The FPPC, for the first time, can say publicly whether it has received a complaint. In past years, that information was withheld from the public. The new policy was developed to improve public awareness and media access to the FPPC, but the policy has sparked controversy.

•The FPPC’s Web site, once difficult to navigate and a sweat to deadline-addled journalists, is in the midst of a redesign.

The commission also isn’t shy about weighing in politically. After the Legislature speedily approved a bill to ease the rules governing the directed charity donations, Johnson, familiar with the ways of the Capitol, wrote directly to the governor and urged him to veto the bill, SB381 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello. “It reduces transparency, delays access to public information and allows money to influence the outcome of an election at the request of a candidate,” Johnson wrote. Calderon immediately snatched the bill back from the governor’s desk.

Johnson is the only former state lawmaker to serve as FPPC chairman. Others have served on the commission — former Assemblyman and now Rep. Jerry Waldie, for example, served on the panel shortly after it was created in 1975 — but Johnson is the first to lead the commission. As chairman, he is the only full-time member of the five-person panel. He has broad influence over staffing, the agenda and reform proposals, and is the public face of the commission, whose other members are largely unknown to the public.

Not everyone is pleased with Johnson’s new role.

A bipartisan group of political lawyers in the California Political Attorneys Association raised questions about the new disclosure policies on complaints and other issues. They say that publicly acknowledging complaints gives legitimacy to the allegation, however spurious, in the media and that the timing of such a complaint could have an impact on an election. The FPPC years ago decided to keep such complaints confidential, but the new policies open the door to abuse, the lawyers argued.

The “obvious inconsistencies raise issues of fundamental fairness and reinforce the need for a clear and uniform set of policies, publicly adopted after public deliberation,” the Nov. 7 letter said, urging the FPPC to schedule a hearing to consider the issue.

And supporters of Núñez, citing a 2003 campaign disclosure document, point out that Johnson himself spent money from campaign funds for hotels, meals and travel, including a $777 meeting at Frank Fat’s, a $701 stay at the Sheraton Maui and a $1,157 tab at Brannan’s restaurant in Sacramento (now Chops).

At first blush, the tart-tongued Johnson, a former ironworker who relished the political battles of the Legislature after being elected in 1978, might seem an unusual fit for FPPC chair. On the floors, he often seemed to snarl into the microphone as he weighed in on a debate. He was one of the “cavemen” — that group of tax-hating conservatives who descended on Sacramento in 1978 in the aftermath of Proposition 13, the voter-approved initiative that cut property taxes by 57 percent — and he sometimes lived up to the name.

He once lunged at former Assemblyman Chuck Quackenbush during a fierce floor debate — they had to be separated by a sergeant at arms — and he once called then-Assembly GOP Leader Bill Jones a “tower of Jell-O. He’s got all the backbone of a chocolate éclair,” an example of the colorful oratory that has gotten him into hot water.

Johnson is aware of the reputation. “I’ve been a partisan. … I haven’t given up my opinions. It’s just that now, I keep them to myself.”
Despite those episodes — and others — Johnson has been seen as evenhanded and independent-minded by many of his colleagues.

“He had basically been very independent in the Legislature, and he’s seen as independent at the FPPC,” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “He isn’t going back into public office, and he’s free to do what he wants. I’ve been very impressed,” sai
d Stern, who served as general counsel when the FPPC was created.

“He knows how the Legislature thinks, how things go in the Legislature, and he brings an expertise,” ” Stern added.

He was also seen privately as friendly and funny, and counted among his close friends former Senate leader John Burton, a San Francisco liberal and a man 180 degrees politically from Johnson but similar in temperament.

In fact, Johnson has been involved in campaign finance reform for decades. He has authored ballot initiatives to limit spending.

One, Proposition 40 in 1984, was opposed by just about everybody, Johnson recalled, while his Proposition 73 was approved by voters in June 1988, but was later dismantled by the courts — by a federal judge appointed by a Democrat.

“For all my years in the Legislature, my colleagues viewed my interest in this area (campaign reform) as one of my eccentricities. They’d pat me on the head and say, ‘That’s Ross.’”

The FPPC chairman, by law, is limited to one term, and the position does not require Senate confirmation. The gives the chairman independence — but it also keeps the clock ticking. “Four years is a relatively short period of time,” Johnson noted.

As for fears that the Capitol’s onetime Republican leader would use his new office to settle scores with Democrats, that hasn’t happened — at least not yet. And Johnson says he maintains a careful distance from the investigations.

“I in no way interfere with individual cases,” Johnson said. “My role is to make sure we have good professionals exercising their professional judgment.”

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