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Politically driven charitable donations now online for first time at FPPC

For the first time, much of the money that California politicians direct from well-heeled interests to nonprofits and charities in their districts is being disclosed on the Web by the Fair Political Practices Commission, following months of internal discussions. The information went up Tuesday afternoon.

(You can view the reports online at: www.fppc.ca.gov/index.html?id=499).

Until recently, the millions of dollars worth of donations—there has been $11.2 million since January 2005 alone—have flown under the public’s radar. But recent news reports detailing the magnitude of the payments prompted the FPPC, the state’s political watchdog, to make the information widely available. Until Tuesday, the payments were recorded only on paper at the FPPC’s Sacramento headquarters. The payments, known as “behested payments” because a donor contributes them to a third party at the politician’s behest and direction, had been going on for nearly a decade with virtually no public or media attention.

“We believe in full disclosure of all contributions that are made to or at the behest of candidates. This information provides the public with the ability to further scrutinize where [political] money is coming from and where it is going,” said FPPC spokesman Roman Porter.

Unlike campaign contributions, which are limited by law, there are no limits on behested payments, which were authorized by a 1998 bill authored by sate Sen. Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach. The money does not flow to the politician, but rather to a recipient of the politician’s choice. The system allows donors to indirectly support officials with unlimited contributions to a politician’s favorite nonprofit cause. The money is intended to serve a legislative, governmental or charitable purpose—an elastic definition that adds ambiguity to the donation scheme. The nonprofit itself is well aware of how the contribution was developed, and knows to whom it should be grateful.
“Who is kidding whom?” FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson said at the time in a Capitol Weekly interview at his FPPC office. “Someone writes the checks (to the charity) because someone picks up the phone and calls.” There is, Johnson said, “considerable political benefit to the official and the payments can be totally outside the limits … It raises the real potential of abuse,” Johnson said.

For politicians, the behested payments are an effective way of getting money to a favorite cause and building political support within the district. For donors, the ability to make unlimited donations gives contributors clout with the politicians. Although backers of the donations say they are charitable and not political, there clearly is a linkage: Some $5.4 million were made in 2006, an election year, for example.

Behested payments cross party lines. They are solicited by rank-and-file lawmakers, legislative leaders and constitutional officers. With few exceptions—such as behested payments supporting the governor’s inaugural committee—they are largely unknown to the public, although lawmakers and Capitol staffers have been aware of the payments for years.

Payments of $5,000 or more are required to be reported, first to the administrative officers of the Senate and Assembly and then to the FPPC, in the case of legislators; statewide officers are required to report the payments to the FPPC within 30 days. An attempt to ease the reporting threshold to $7,000 and allow up to 90 days for disclosure was approved in the Legislature this year.

But it was later yanked from the governor’s desk, in part because Johnson raised concerns. The FPPC sought to tighten the disclosure rules not ease them. The bill, SB381, was authored by Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

Supporters say the payments help charities and other worthy community causes, and note that the legislation authorizing the donations followed earlier FPPC “advice letters” allowing the payments to be exempt from contribution limits.

On July 5, Capitol Weekly reported details of the behested payments, which cross party lines and are solicited by rank-and-file lawmakers, legislative leaders and constitutional officers.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 12-month period last year behested a record $1.62 million to his inaugural campaign committee; this year through the mid-year it was nearly $1.2 million. The money came from nearly an extensive array of companies and interests that included real estate, banking, manufacturing, energy, beverages, utilities and others. The donors include some who have had legislative or political business in the Capitol. Some $450,000 came in nine donations of $50,000 each, including payments from Chevron, the California Real Estate PAC and PG&E.

Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat and former mayor of Oakland, has behested more than $900,000 in six months for two entities—the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts. The largest single donation, $100,000, came from the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.

Senate Leader Don Perata, a Democrat, behested nearly $90,000 a month since January to a variety of groups, including a breast-cancer research organization, the United Way, a Livermore-area school district and a group called the Third Wednesday Peacekeeper Fund. The money came from Kaiser Permanente and several others who each gave $25,000; Del Mar businessman John J. Moores and the CSU Institute of Long Beach, who each gave $100,000; and $50,000 each from Chartwell Partners, a national law firm, and the California Alliance for Jobs, a political campaign committee.

More than half of the $530,000 went to the Rebuilding California Foundation, a new nonprofit—not to be confused with a political committee with a similar name—that was created in January.

Perata said at the time that the aim of the new foundation was to educate the public and advocate on behalf of the voter-approved infrastructure bonds.

“The aim of the Rebuilding California Foundation is to make sure the infrastructure bonds get done. In essence, to keep policy makers, civic leaders and the general public informed of and involved in the process of funding and building the new roads, new schools, safe housing and flood control projects our state needs to keep our economy strong,” Perata said.

Speaker Fabian Núñez came under fire last week for donations made at his behest. Among them were $120,00 from Verizon after Núñez shepherded through a utility deregulation bill supported by the phone company. The LA Times reported Núñez used a small charity “as a conduit to funnel almost $300,000 from companies and organizations with business in the Capitol to events that helped him politically.”


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