State campaign watchdog gets an overhaul

A new majority on the state’s campaign watchdog will be in place when Secretary of State Debra Bowen appoints a new member to the Fair Political Practices Commission sometime next week.

Bowen’s appointment will mark the third new appointment this year to the five-member commission, and could tip the political balance of the commission, say some campaign watchdog groups.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jerry Brown picked Democrat Lynn Montgomery to serve on the commission. Controller John Chiang tapped Republican Ronald Rotunda to serve on the panel.

“The last two appointments have been, on their face, disappointing,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “Bowen’s appointment is going to be absolutely critical. Hopefully, she will do the right thing and appoint somebody who understands what the mission of the FPPC is, and believes there is an important function in serving as the watchdog for political campaign activities.”

Bowen has told advocates that she has made her decision, but will not announce the pick until next week. Bowen did not talk to Capitol Weekly for this story.

The new members could alter the direction of a commission that, under Republican Ross Johnson’s leadership, has become more aggressive in cracking down on political committees designed to make an end-run around campaign contribution and spending limits. Johnson’s commission has also been an aggressive enforcer, levying large fines against violators of state rules, and bringing aggressive legal action against political groups.

“Ross has been an excellent chairman,” says Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “I think it’s refreshing, and frankly, it’s been somewhat surprising. Ross is a former legislator, and the first chairman to be a former legislator. You might expect maybe a little bit of more sympathy toward the Legislature, but Ross is very aggressive and been a real regulator in action and deed.”

Johnson said he does not expect the infusion of new blood to alter the direction of the commission. “I honestly don’t expect any changes. I think that in the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been here, we’ve worked to develop consensus, and we’ve done that pretty successfully,” he said.

Feng, who also had nice words for Johnson’s tenure as chairman, was more skeptical about the future direction of the commission. “On the two most recent appointments, we can only hope that they will also turn out to be surprises,” she said. “However, Lynn Montgomery’s resume suggests she’s the embodiment of a political insider. Ron Rotunda is a traditional anti-regulation conservative who has, in a previous life, been a consultant for the CATO Institute, which has a long record of opposing campaign finance regulation.”

Under state law, the governor appoints two members to the commission from different political parties. The state attorney general, controller and secretary of state all get to make one appointment to the commission. If all three Constitutional officers are of the same party (as they are now), the controller must make an appointment from a list provided by the opposing political party.

Earlier this year, Brown appointed Montgomery to the commission. Montgomery is a Democratic campaign veteran, having worked as director of the Assembly’s political arm, the Speaker’s Office of Member Services. She was also a top lieutenant for former Lt. Gov Cruz Bustamante. Ironically, Montgomery was part of Bustamante’s campaign, which was fined $263,000 by the commission, which was, at the time, the largest fine in commission history.

Montgomery says she has some problems with limits on political contributions, because they have created the rise of independent expenditure committees and self-funded candidates. “That’s not something I’ve been very fond of,” she said. “I don’t know that it’s good for the public. There’s less accountability. I don’t necessarily think that’s where it should have gone.”

 But as a commissioner, she said, her focus will be on educating campaigns about how to navigate the minefield of paperwork that is required. “I’ve always been a strong believer in disclosure,” she said. “And also education – going into the public and making sure our forms and manuals are clear.”

Montgomery also brings years of FPPC experience to the job, having served as a consultant and spokeswoman for the commission before her work in the Assembly.

Johnson said he is confident Montgomery will be a strong FPPC commissioner.

“Commissioner Montgomery is a former employee here at the commission. She has a history of working to enforce the political reform act,” Johnson said. “And she was appointed by Jerry Brown, who was the author of Prop 9, the original ballot measure (that created the FPPC). I’ve seen nothing that would indicate to me that she will be anything but supportive of the efforts that we’ve implemented over the last couple of years.”

Rotunda is a California political outsider. A former assistant majority council for the Watergate Committee, he has served as a professor at the University of Illinois and George Mason University in Virginia before landing a job at Chapman University’s Law School in Orange County.  

His appointment was heralded by the state Republican Party when it was announced. State Party Chairman Ron Nehring called Rotunda “a world class expert in a number of key legal fields and we are confident he will serve as a powerful voice for reason on the commission.”

Reason seems to be a driving force in Rotunda’s political philosophy. On his George Mason University home page, he is seen posing with a cardboard cutout of Leonard Nemoy’s Star Trek character, Spock. His Champan University bio page is a bit more conservative, featuring a headshot of Rotunda in a bowtie and wire-framed glasses.

Johnson said he “knows of nothing in (Rotunda’s) background that would indicate” he won’t be an aggressive enforcer of campaign rules.

When it comes to campaign finance issues, the divisions often have less to do with party affiliation than with philosophies over the role of money in politics. Both major political parties have resisted efforts to crack down on limits of their campaign spending.

In fact, a bipartisan group, the California Political Attorneys Association, is a common presence at commission hearings, often challenging new rules under consideration.

Johnson said that while groups like CPAA may lobby for less stringent rules, most who fall under the FPPC’s regulatory shadow simply want clarity.

“I believe that most people who have reporting responsibilities want to obey the law,” said Johnson. “Tell me what the rules are, and I’ll play by them. Folks appear before the commission to argue the rules, and they argue for the most liberal interpretation of those rules at times. And that tends to be without reference to any party affiliation.”

Indeed Hodson and Johnson, who are from different political parties, have voted in lock-step with each other since both joined the commission in 2007. Since that time, the commission has cracked down on ballot-measure committees controlled by political candidates, and levied heavy fines against those who have run afoul of state campaign finance laws.

Though the name of Bowen’s appointee will not yet be released to the public until the
formal announcement by the FPPC and Bowen’s office, speculation has been made that Bowen has already decided on the person to replace commissioner Eugene Hugeunin, whose official term expired January 31, 2009.

Hugeunin will serve as a commissioner until Bowen’s appointment is made.

The FPPC was created as part of the Political Reform Act of 1974, passed by voters as Proposition 9, to ensure regulations on topics such as campaign financing and conflicts of interests, lobbyist’s registration, and gifts to public officials and candidates.

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